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Rhoda Jatau Languishes In Bauchi Jail 18 Months After Protesting Murder Of Deborah Samuel By Sokoto Fanatics

Bauchi State-based health care worker, Rhoda Jatau, will remain in jail, extending her already harrowing 18 months incarceration after her no case submission before a High Court in Bauchi State was thrown out on Monday to the dismay of human rights observers and the international community. 

Ms Jatau was arrested by the State Security Service in May 2020 after she shared a video that condemned the lynching of Deborah Samuel, a Christian college student accused of blasphemy and set ablaze in daylight by Islamic fanatics in Sokoto. She is facing charges of inciting public disturbance, “exciting contempt of religious creed,” and cyberstalking. 

The gravity of the charges is further accentuated by the fact that the “contempt” charge serves as the civil equivalent of blasphemy under Islamic Sharia law, a legal paradigm often politically enforced outside general constitutional provisions.

The prosecution had since closed its case but the defence’s attempt to present its no case argument was repeatedly stymied as the judge defers court dates and the trial experiences a prolonged timeline. The submission was eventually made on October 16 at a hearing witnessed by Ms Jatau’s husband, Ya’u Adamu, and other observers.  

Yesterday’s ruling against the no case submission meant that the court affirms the legal standing of the authorities to argue the charges brought against her even though it is substantiated with scant evidence. In what could mark a predetermined proceeding, the court admitted the interpretation of Ms Jatau sharing of a social media video as offensive to extant laws and her lawyers would now work to prove that her action was justified rather than the initial stance that her action did not constitute the offences alleged. 

Her arrest and prolonged detention have raised international concerns with the United Nations and organisations such as Christian Solidarity International expressing worry. They contend that Ms Jatau’s incarceration represents an infringement on her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion or belief.

Of concern is the repeated denial of bail to Ms Jatau. The United Nations and CSI underscore that the denial of bail not only restricts her freedom but also raises questions about the fairness and proportionality of the legal measures taken against her.

Equally troubling is the intermittent access to legal counsel that she has experienced since her arrest. International observers emphasise that unrestricted access to legal representation is a cornerstone of a fair and just trial. The limitations imposed on her access to legal advice not only impede her ability to mount a robust defence but also cast a shadow on the integrity of the legal proceedings.

The proceedings against the Christian mother of five are symptomatic of the pervasive religious oppression and violent fanaticism prevalent in northern Nigeria where seemingly innocuous comments and the expression of views that should be constitutionally protected often become the focal point of religious manipulation by extremists. These extremists leverage such instances to orchestrate extrajudicial mob actions against perceived victims.

In instances where mob action falls short of achieving its intended outcome, an insidious alternative is pursued. Long-drawn-out trials, marked by tactical delays and prolonged legal proceedings, become tools to frustrate fair trials of the accused. Many of these cases drag without reaching a conclusive end, leaving victims like Ms Jatau in prison without a pronouncement of guilt. These individuals are compelled to endure protracted periods of uncertainty, further exacerbating the already grave challenges they face.

The spectre of religious fundamentalism in northern Nigeria continues to be a source of worry to observers and experts. The situation at hand is thatof a complex social setting where fervent Islamic religious beliefs are at the core of the social value system of a secluded part in a secular state and oftentimes violently agitated. This phenomenon is worsened by challenging socio-economic conditions that provide fertile ground for fanatic ideologies to take root and flourish. 

The intersection of politics with religious sentiments adds another layer to this complex dynamic. An illustrative example is the action by prominent opposition figure, Atiku Abubakar, who, in response to social media pressure from fanatics, deleted online comments condemning the killing of Ms Samuel. The fanatics commented that his position on the matter would cause him to lose northern votes.

This pattern underscores what could be interpreted as the political necessity of preserving strains of religious fundamentalism at the expense of social sanity and peaceful coexistence. Many times, crucial sectors of society become victims themselves to this posturing, where even the legal system, rather than serving as a bastion of justice, becomes a tool for perpetuating injustice.

The prolonged detention of individuals without a resolution of their cases raises significant human rights concerns, particularly in the context of religiously motivated charges. 

Bauchi State stands as one of the twelve northern Nigerian states that have integrated Sharia law into their criminal justice systems since 1999. This legal framework, stemming from Islamic principles, has become a source of contention, especially in recent years, as individuals in several northern states face severe penalties, including lengthy prison sentences and even death, for perceived offences deemed insulting to Islam. 

Kano State witnessed a shari’a court imposing a 10-year jail sentence on 13-year-old Omar Farouq in 2020, accusing him of blasphemy. Simultaneously, Yahaya Sharif, a 22-year-old musician, received a death sentence that same year for sharing a song with purportedly profane lyrics on social media. Farouq’s case gained international attention, leading to his eventual exoneration and release the following year following appeals, notably from the global community and appeals to the then president Muhammadu Buhari. 

Farouq subsequently fled the country but Mr Sharif continues to languish in prison as he takes his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. 

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