News & Current Affairs

Health Worker Rhoda Jatau Languishes in Prison for Speaking Out Against Religious Fanaticism

By Azeezat Okunlola | Nov 29, 2023

Health care worker Rhoda Jatau based in Bauchi State continues to remain in prison after 18 months of her no-case application was rejected by a Bauchi State high court on Monday.

In May 2020, Ms Jatau was apprehended by the State Security Service following the distribution of a video she had posted denouncing the lynching of Deborah Samuel.

Samuel was a Christian college student in Sokoto who had been accused of blasphemy and had been set ablaze in broad daylight by Islamic extremists. She is being held on accusations of cyberstalking, "exciting contempt of religious creed," and inciting public commotion. 

The seriousness of the accusations is intensified since, according to Islamic Sharia law—a legal framework that is frequently politically implemented outside of basic constitutional provisions—the "contempt" charge is the civil blasphemy.

Although the prosecution had already rested its case, the defense's efforts to argue that there was no case were continually blocked by the judge, leading to a protracted trial with postponed court dates. On October 16, the submission was finally made during a hearing that was observed by Ya'u Adamu, the husband of Ms Jatau, and others. 

The court upheld the authorities' legal standing to defend the charges against her despite the lack of evidence in the verdict against the no case submission. The court accepted the argument that Ms Jatau's social media video sharing violated existing laws, suggesting a predetermined proceeding; her attorneys will now seek to demonstrate that their client's actions were warranted, as opposed to their earlier position that the videos did not constitute the offenses claimed. 

Christian Solidarity International and the United Nations have voiced their concern at her arrest and extended detention. They argue that by imprisoning Ms. Jatau, they are violating her basic rights to freedom of speech, religion, and belief.

The multiple rejections of Ms Jatau's bail requests are also concerning. Not only does the rejection of bail limit her freedom, but it also begs the question of whether the legal actions pursued against her were fair and proportionate, according to the UN and CSI.

It is equally concerning that she has only had occasional access to legal representation since her detention. Both her capacity to present a strong defence and the credibility of the judicial procedures are undermined by the restrictions placed on her access to legal counsel.

Northern Nigeria is rife with violent fanaticism and widespread religious persecution; cases like the one involving the Christian mother of five illustrate how extremists can use religion to manipulate even the most harmless speech, such as the expression of opinions that should be protected by the constitution. Such incidents are used by these radicals to organise riots outside of court proceedings, targeting those they believe have been wronged.

When the desired results are not achieved by mob action, a more sinister approach is taken. Prolonged legal proceedings and tactical delays characterise drawn-out trials, which are used to thwart fair trials for the accused. 

Victims like Ms Jatau, who remain in jail awaiting a verdict of guilt, are common since many of these cases never reach a final resolution. The already severe difficulties these people confront are made much worse by being forced to endure lengthy periods of uncertainty.

Concern among experts and spectators regarding religious fanaticism in northern Nigeria remains high. At issue here is a complicated social milieu in which the deeply held Islamic religious beliefs—often fiercely agitated—form the bedrock of the social value system of a remote region within a secular state. Difficult social and economic circumstances make this problem worse by giving rise to and supporting extreme beliefs. 

Twelve states in northern Nigeria have adopted Sharia law as their criminal justice system since 1999, and Bauchi State is one of them. This Islamic legal system has been a contentious issue in recent years due to the harsh punishments meted out by various northern governments for crimes seen as disrespectful to Islam. These punishments range from long prison terms to the death penalty. 

Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy from Kano State, was accused of blasphemy in 2020 and a shari'a court sentenced him to 10 years in prison. In the same year, 22-year-old artist Yahaya Sharif was sentenced to death for what was allegedly a profanity-laden song that she had shared on social media. Appeals, particularly from the foreign community and to then-president Muhammadu Buhari, ultimately led to Farouq's exoneration and release the following year, as his story attracted international attention. Although Farouq eventually left the nation, Mr Sharif is still awaiting a decision from Nigeria's highest court while he sits in prison.