A Nigerian boy was sentenced to 10 years for blasphemy. Then people started offering to serve part of it.
By Danielle Paquette,
Robert Michael Picture Alliance/DPA/AP
DAKAR, Senegal — After a religious court in northwest Nigeria sentenced a 13-year-old boy to 10 years in prison for blasphemy, the head of the Auschwitz Memorial in Poland publicly offered to serve part of that time, invoking the memory of the Holocaust’s youngest victims.
The Polish historian said he received dozens of emails over the weekend from people around the world who wanted to do the same thing.
“I cannot remain indifferent to this disgraceful sentence for humanity,” wrote Piotr Cywinski, who is in charge of preserving the former Nazi Germany death camp, in an open letter Friday to the Nigerian president.
Children, he noted, were “imprisoned and murdered” under Adolf Hitler’s reign, and the memorial director said he did not want to see another child robbed of his future.
Instead, Cywinski proposed that he and 119 other volunteers each serve a month of the boy’s prison sentence in Kano.
By Monday, he said, more than 150 offers poured in from people across Africa, Europe and North America.
The boy “should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities, and stigmatized physically, emotionally, and educationally for the rest of his life,” Cywinski wrote.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s spokesman, Garba Shehu, said the leader declined to comment on the Kano case and directed questions to the northern state’s governor, who did not immediately respond.
The outcry put an international spotlight on Nigeria’s Sharia courts, which operate in 12 states throughout the country’s predominantly Muslim north.
Only Muslims can be tried in the system, where judges have handed out floggings, amputations and death sentences.
The nation’s secular appellate courts, including the Supreme Court, can reverse those decisions.
Kola Alapinni, a human rights lawyer in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, is working to do just that for the boy, Omar Farouq.
“This is a secular country, where we should have the freedom to express ourselves,” he said.
The sentence violated the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Nigeria ratified in 2001, according to UNICEF — as well as the country’s own child protection laws, which safeguard freedom of expression, Alapinni said.
Omar, who has been in prison since February, did not receive a fair trial, his lawyer said, after Islamic police accused him of making blasphemous comments to a friend.
Part of the boy’s punishment is menial labor at the Nigerian Correctional Service in Kano, which is known to be overcrowded. That’s particularly troubling as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Alapinni said.
“Nigerians are outraged,” he said. “We are embarrassed. It is shameful. It takes us back to the stone ages.”
Details on his cell conditions remain murky. The 13-year-old is not allowed to meet with his attorney. No hearing date has been set.
Alapinni stumbled upon the case while researching another: Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a 22-year-old musician who was found guilty of blasphemy last month at the same court for a song he shared on WhatsApp.
Protesters had burned down his family’s home, and he was sentenced to death. The singer is appealing the ruling. (The Sharia courts have carried out only one death sentence since 1999.)
More than 85,000 people have signed a Change.org petition to save Sharif-Aminu’s life.
Alapinni’s strategy: Keep his clients’ names all over the Internet.
That’s how the Auschwitz Memorial director found Omar’s case. A friend in India had called him after reading about it online.
The Nigerian president had visited the former concentration camp in 2018.
Cywinski hoped he could catch Buhari’s attention.
“In our culture today, everything is about liking, sharing, retweeting,” he said. “I wanted to do something more.
Borso Tall contributed to this report.