Snatched From the Jaws of Death

Kola Alapinni May/June 2024
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Two young men convicted of blasphemy. An intrepid band of lawyers prepared to step into danger.

International human rights lawyer Kola Alapinni shares a firsthand account of the struggle to appeal a death sentence imposed under the Sharia penal code laws of northern Nigeria.

It all began in the pandemic year. The looming threat of economic and social lockdown started as a rumor, as all things start in my country. And then it hit.

Amid this upheaval, some bizarre, non-COVID news slowly began to filter in from the ancient northern Nigerian city of Kano. An Upper Sharia Court judge had sentenced a young musician, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu (also known as the Kano Singer), to death. His alleged crime? Blasphemy. Yahaya had sung some lyrics found to be offensive, which he had shared via a voice note in a closed Whatsapp group.

The crime of blasphemy may sound preposterous to Western ears, as it does to those in southern Nigeria as well. But it is not unusual to hear such news from northern Nigeria, where 12 states apply the Sharia penal code laws. Under these laws, pregnancy outside of marriage is evidence enough to get convicted of adultery. On March 22, 2002, for instance, a Sharia court at Bakori, Katsina State, sentenced Amina Lawal to death after she confessed to having had a child while divorced. The man named as the father of her baby girl reportedly denied having sex with her, and the charges against him were discontinued. Such is the discriminatory nature of the Sharia penal code laws. They never punish the rich or powerful, and they smack of male chauvinism. Amina was sentenced to death by stoning, but her sentence was ultimately quashed after an international outcry.

Also in 2002 a Sharia court in Sokoto State had upheld the appeal of 35-year-old Safiya Husseini Tungar Tudu, who had also been convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning. Her case also caused an uproar within the federal government of Nigeria, the international community, and among non­governmental organizations. The federal attorney general and the minister of justice reportedly wrote to each of governors of the 12 northern Nigerian states that apply the Sharia penal code laws, advising them to “take measures to amend or modify the jurisdiction of the courts imposing these [corporal] punishments.” But nothing came out of it.

I share this background to help you understand the fate that initially befell Yahaya, the Kano Singer. He was fortunate that it was the Islamic police, also known as Hisbah, that had raided his house and arrested him. The mob that formed afterward destroyed his family home, looting it and leaving behind a trail of carnage. The rest of his family fled for their lives.

Under procedural rules, Yahaya had 30 days to appeal his sentence of death. As this window of time shrank, it was obvious that it would be an uphill task to get this young man off the hook; or more accurately, out of the hangman’s noose. There were several reasons his appeal had not gone forward.

First, when the news about Yahaya’s conviction broke, the chairman of a council of Islamic clerics had forbidden any Muslim lawyer to defend Yahaya. At this point it was, at best, a hypothetical fatwa only: no one had yet turned up from the state-funded Legal Aid Council to defend Yahaya.

Second, the Sharia court refused to release the judgment to enable an appeal. Without this, a transcript of proceedings could not be produced to allow translation into the English language, which is the language of the secular common law court in which an appeal would be commenced. This refusal by the Sharia court was aimed at ensuring the 30-day window for appeal would lapse and the now-convicted singer would be hurriedly executed.

Third, the case had become so politically charged that access to the singer had been restricted. The president of the Nigerian Bar Association had dispatched two association leaders, including its vice president, to Kano prison to see Yahaya and to file an urgent appeal. But they hit a brick wall; they were not allowed to see him. All our legal colleagues at the local Nigerian Bar Association branch in Kano had either switched off their phones or were unreachable by the time the team from national headquarters arrived. So they returned, disappointed, to the capital, Abuja. A couple of other legal colleagues also tried to intervene in Yahaya’s case and file an appeal, but they were met with the same roadblocks.

A Novel Approach

So what did we do differently? This is the question I get asked a lot.

Recall that I earlier mentioned the COVID lockdown. During this time a few like-minded folks had come together to form a WhatsApp group. We decided to focus on issues touching on religious freedom, religious tolerance, and the apparent nonseparation of state and religion in our country. We were in the early stages, debating our ideology and principles, when Yahaya’s case broke. We were strange bedfellows—a peculiar alliance of individuals, believers and nonbelievers alike, and all shades in between. We decided to act swiftly.

Our first step was to activate our boots on the ground in Kano and to find out if this was a doable project. We knew that our actions had to be subject to the utmost secrecy and that our local gatekeepers could not be compromised. In this kind of situation the greatest fear in the north is of mob action and reprisal attacks. In essence, you could become a victim of jungle justice. All it would take would be for one person to raise an alarm.

I left for Kano on the afternoon of September 2, 2020, and embedded myself there. I didn’t let my fixer—my local assistant—know my movements. I hadn’t met him before, and although he came via a trusted friend, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I had also put a former classmate on notice that I was going to be in his city, and he had promised to help.

Who Will Step Up?

Next morning I asked my fixer to meet me in my hotel, and we left for the court premises. My former classmate met up with us there. His office was close by, he said. Having attended school in northern Nigeria for a couple of years, I knew how to dress the part, and the pandemic made it easier with our identities concealed behind face masks. I was ushered into the court registry.

As soon as I brought out the papers to file, I saw palpable fear on the faces of the court officials. This was a controversial and highly political case, and I knew they wouldn’t want to touch it. But I think they had sympathy for Yahaya, and they were fed up with the overreaching attitude of the Islamic police and the Sharia court. They asked if the appellant had signed the appeal, and I said no—no one could get access to him. They asked for the judgment of the Sharia court, which should accompany the notice of appeal. Again, I said that this was like the camel passing through the eye of the needle; the Sharia court would not release it to my colleagues who had gone there earlier.

International human rights attorney Kola Alapinni led the appeals of two men in Nigeria convicted of blasphemy.

That’s when I stumbled upon a lesser-known procedure, and it proved to be the game-changer. The appellate division of the Kano State High Court had anticipated instances like Yahaya’s, in which a lower court may be uncooperative in the face of an attempt to appeal a Sharia court’s judgment. The state high court had the power to transmit a letter to the Sharia court “commanding” it to transfer its judgment to the higher court. It became a court-to-court affair; an intrajudicial mechanism that worked like magic!

It was then the court officials told me of another boy in prison for blasphemy. On the same day that Yahaya had been sentenced, Omar Farouq Bashir had been sentenced to 10 years in jail by the same judge, in the same court.

This case was getting bigger and messier than I had anticipated. We had to move with speed. It took less than 20 minutes to file Yahaya’s appeal. I asked the court officials to serve notice of the appeal on the state government, but they declined. They feared for their lives and careers, too. I then suggested that they use a courier company, and they agreed. I was hugely relieved.

I knew I had to be ingenious in getting the news of the appeal out to the international media. My training both as a journalist and an international human rights lawyer kicked in, and I moved swiftly. I reached out to my friend who had given me his foot-soldier in Kano as my fixer. He was an online publisher, and I had been on his legal team when he was tried for treasonable felony by the government. The previous year he had run for president. I gave him one hour to break the news on his platform, Sahara Reporters, before I would give the news to the international media. I sent the scanned copies of the notice of appeal to him. He had been a nightmare to previous governments for his guerrilla journalism and had crossed paths with the security agencies a couple of times. He ran with the scoop. All other blogs copied it from him, typos and all.

Next I went to the courier company. I sent a copy of the notice of appeal to the attorney general and another copy to the governor. Now the governor could not deny that an appeal had been filed. He had hinted that he would sign the death warrant if no appeal was lodged.

I immediately took to Twitter and uploaded the first page of the document filed. On my way to the airport, I tagged the international press, the United Nations, and some other human rights institutions. I got on the plane and switched off my phone. By the time I landed in Abuja 40 minutes later, my phone was blowing up with phone calls, Twitter DMs, and retweets. One part of Kano was jubilating that an appeal had been lodged, while another part was angry because Yahaya had beaten the appeal deadline.

We Left a Boy Behind

I debriefed my strategy team and let them know the importance of making the news go international. More important, I let them know that there was also a 13-year-old-boy, Omar Farouq Bashir, in prison who had been sentenced to 10 years for blasphemy. (Later we confirmed he was 17 years old.) We couldn’t sleep that night. A return mission had to be planned. The news of Yahaya’s successful filing had temporarily taken attention off Omar Farouq. When I returned to Kano on September 7, it was just two days before Omar Farouq’s window for appeal would elapse.

On this trip the margin of unknowns had been narrowed. I went straight to the court from the airport and arrived just in time for the 4:00 p.m. prayers. The court officials insisted that they had to go pray first. Fifteen minutes later, or what seemed like an eternity, they were back. It was faster to file this time around; we knew the drill. The letter was again transmitted to the Sharia court to forward their judgment to the appellate division of the high court. Copies of the appeals were sent again by courier to the attorney general and the governor.

I returned to Abuja the next morning on the first flight. By then, CNN had dug me out on LinkedIn, and the president of the National Bar Association had contacted me. He had spoken to the governor, who confirmed that his office had received the appeal and that the matter would follow the due process of the law.

The director of the Auschwitz Foundation in Poland had seen my tweet. He wrote an open letter to the then president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, offering, along with some of his friends, to serve Omar Farouq’s jail sentence. This, of course, embarrassed the government. The United Nations Children’s Fund also reminded the government that Omar Farouq was a minor and had no place in an adult court. The United States embassy got in touch, then the British High Commission. The French ambassador summoned me to his residence to be debriefed.

Free at Last!

The court heard the appeals amid very tight security. Omar Farouq was set free completely. Yahaya’s death sentence was quashed. We had literally snatched him from the jaws of death. But curiously, his case was remitted for a retrial at the Sharia court before another judge. We appealed again promptly. We went to the second-­highest court in Nigeria. Two justices found against him, but the presiding justice set him free. We launched another appeal to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. We now await a court date, when we can again remind our country of our obligations under international law and under the international treaties we have signed. We are also going to test the supremacy of Nigeria’s constitution against the Kano State Sharia penal code laws and, by extension, all the Sharia penal code laws of the 12 northern Nigerian states.

This is a landmark case, and we ask for your continued support. We cannot do this alone.

Article Author: Kola Alapinni

Kola Alapinni is an international human rights lawyer. He obtained his LL.B. (with honors) from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and his LL.M. in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex, United Kingdom. He is a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and a recipient of the 2023 U.S. secretary of state’s International Religious Freedom Award.