Woman set for blasphemy trial after condemning brutal lynching of student

A healthcare worker charged with blasphemy laws simply for condeming the brutal killing of a student in Nigeria has today failed in her attempt to get a trial date in order for her case to be heard.

Mother-of-five Rhoda Jatau, 45, appeared at the High Court in Bauchi in the north of the country, having spent the last 18 months in prison.

She has reportedly been held without a trial and without the ability to communicate with her family.

Ms Jatau was arrested was taken into custody after sharing a video of and commenting on the horrific lynching of 22-year-old Deborah Samuel Yakubu in May of last year.

Ms Yakubu, a Christian, used a student WhatsApp group to thank Jesus Christ for helping her pass her exams at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, Nigeria, where she was studying.

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As a result, she was dragged from her college dormitory by male students, stoned and burned to death.

Despite the faces of her killers faces being clearly visible in gruesome viral footage circulated on West African social media networks, nobody has so far been charged with her murder.

Five days after her killing, healthcare worker and mother Rhoda Jatau commented on the case to her colleagues.

Sharing a video clip with a WhatsApp group of Bauchi State Primary Healthcare workers, she condemned the murder, defending Yakubu’s right to express her religious beliefs.

Ms Jatau’s colleagues forwarded her message, at which point she was accused of blasphemy.

Her neighbourhood in Katanga, Warji Local Government Area, was engulfed by rioting and violence. She was arrested, and her husband and children fled their home.

Rhoda was taken into custody and charged by the authorities with blasphemy, inciting a mob, and contempt of a religious creed.

In December 2022, she was charged with “intention to disturb the public peace in which the content of the video is a blasphemy of the Prophet Mohammed which seriously incited disturbance and caused the breach of peace of the community…”.

Human rights lawyers have pointed out that Sections 38 and 39 of Nigeria’s constitution guarantee freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and expression.

Human rights experts claim the continual postponements of the hearing are a tactic to keep Ms Jatau in jail indefinitely.

Today was the sixth attempt by her lawyers to secure her a trial and mount a defence. Previous hearings have collapsed due to the local government citing delays, loss of paperwork, or declaring unexpected holidays.

Caroline Duffield of Open Doors UK & Ireland said: “This is a bitter blow. Rhoda Jatau has been imprisoned without trial for 18 months now.

“Her only crime was to tell friends on social media that she condemned a shocking act of mob violence that killed an innocent woman.

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“It confirms yet again that in this region of Nigeria, violence and persecution against Christians is happening with impunity.

“It is astonishing that the only person in jail over the murder of Deborah Samuel Yakubu is the person who protested it.”

She continued: “Rhoda Jatau legitimately exercised her right of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief in a peaceful manner.

“To be prosecuted for sharing content condemning a senseless murder is astonishing. No action is being taken against those involved in the mob violence that took the life of Deborah Samuel Yakubu, in spite of footage being filmed by the attackers on their phones and shared.”

Christians, a minority in northern Nigeria, face ongoing discrimination and high levels of pressure for their faith, including casual accusations of blasphemy and insulting the majority religion, Open Doors says.

Ms Duffield added: “The way the mob violence against both Deborah Yakubu and Rhoda Jatau is handled clearly shows a concerning culture of impunity against perpetrators in parts of Nigeria.”

Blasphemy laws exist in 12 states in northern Nigeria that adopted Sharia law in 1999, including Bauchi state.

The laws sit uneasily alongside Nigeria’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience and religious expression.

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Both the European Union and the United Nations have repeatedly raised concerns and called on the Nigerian government to repeal blasphemy laws.

In their most recent letter to Nigeria’s government, dated August 2023, published recently in the absence of a formal response from Abuja, UN Special Rapporteurs highlighted the cases of both women.

They called on Nigeria’s government to repeal blasphemy laws, which “legitimise negative and violent social attitudes towards members of religious minorities and encourage and lead to acts of violence against them”

In Nigeria’s Kano State in 2020, a 13-year-old boy who declared his atheism was sentenced to 10 years in jail for alleged blasphemy. He was eventually released after high-profile international campaigns.

A 22-year-old gospel singer of Sufi Muslim background, Yahaya Sharif, was jailed in 2020 for singing about Sufi religious beliefs on social media. He is still in jail.

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