President of the Nigerian Humanist Association, Mubarak Bala, sentenced to 24 years for ‘blasphemy’ in Nigeria.

Today, MPs debated the right to freedom of religion or belief in Nigeria. Almost all speakers from across the House raised particular concerns about Mubarak Bala, President of the Nigerian Humanist Association, who last year was sentenced to 24 years in prison for a ‘blasphemous’ post on Facebook. Humanists UK briefed MPs ahead of the debate.

Humanists UK campaigns for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) around the world, particularly for non-religious people facing persecution. In many countries it is impossible to be openly non-religious. Laws that criminalise blasphemy and apostasy are often the source of such persecution – as they were in Mubarak Bala’s case. The repeal of such laws is therefore a vital step in guaranteeing FoRB for all.

Jim Shannon (Democratic Unionist Party), Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International FoRB – of which Humanists UK is a stakeholder – secured the debate. He stated: ‘For humanists, for atheists, and for non-religious belief groups discrimination and persecution is a fact of life. Many are forced to live in hiding making it hard to estimate the number of people in Nigeria who are of non-religious belief. He then raised the case of Mubarak Bala, requesting an update from the UK Government on their interventions in his case.

Kevin Foster (Conservative) drew attention to the persecution of the non-religious. He quoted research from the Pew Research Centre, which recorded that 49% of Nigerians were Christian, 49% were Muslim, and less than 1% were non-religious. He went on to say: ‘life for non-religious people in Nigeria remains challenging and dangerous due to their beliefs. Given the fear of imprisonment and threats of violence it is not possible to be openly non-religious in northern Nigeria and very challenging even in the south. Therefore it’s very difficult to calculate what proportion of the population is actually non-religious as we are able to do from our census returns, making the 1% figure I quoted earlier highly unreliable.’ He then drew attention to Humanist International’s Freedom of Thought report.

Florence Eshalomi (Labour) commented: ‘Nigeria is only one of 13 countries where blasphemy still remains punishable by death. That should not be right in 2023.’ She called on the Government to use its soft power to influence their Nigerian counterparts to secure freedom of religion or belief for all. She also raised Bala’s case.

Marie Rimmer (Labour) commented: ‘Mubarak Bala was a prominent human rights activist that was sentenced to 24 years in prison all for “blasphemous” comments on Facebook.’ She called on the Government to do more to assist Bala and others being punished under blasphemy laws, as Nigeria is a big recipient of aid from the UK.

Patrick Grady (Scottish National Party) echoed the serious concerns about the treatment of Mubarak Bala: ‘arrested in April 2020, held without charge for more than a year, accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook, then denied legal access to support, and the authorities being accused of denying him access to adequate medical care. And a sentence of 24 years for a Facebook post.’

Shadow Foreign Minister Lyn Brown said: ‘Religious freedom in Nigeria isn’t just about armed groups because state institutions can also bear responsibility. We heard last April, Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was sentenced to 24 years in prison because of “blasphemous” posts on Facebook. So I hope the Minister will be able to update up today on the latest in Mr Bala’s appeal.’

In her response, Foreign Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Conservative) addressed the actions taken in Mubarak Bala’s case:

‘The UK Government continues to monitor his case closely following his sentencing by Kano state courts to that 24 year sentence for “blasphemy” on a Facebook post. Officials most recently raised Mr Bala’s case with the Kano State deputy Governor on the 19 January. And in April the British High Commissioner joined a meeting with Mr Bala’s humanist organisational associates with other international partners to continue to raise our disquiet about the situation.’

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson said:

‘We are grateful to all those who contributed to this debate. In particular, we are pleased to see that Mubarak Bala’s case remains at the forefront of the conversation around freedom of religion or belief in Nigeria, with cross-party support. We are also pleased to see the steps the UK Government is taking to raise his case and defend the right to FoRB for all in Nigeria.

‘Blasphemy and apostasy remain punishable by death in Nigeria. These laws falsely justify the social persecution of the non-religious, who are intimidated, threatened, attacked, and murdered by their peers with impunity. To say the situation is dire is an understatement.

‘We support the calls of MPs for the Government to use all channels available to encourage the repeal all blasphemy and apostasy laws, and to secure the release of those convicted or imprisoned under them.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at [email protected] or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

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Read our briefing ahead of today’s debate in Parliament

Read Humanist International’s Freedom of Thought Report

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