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Nigeria: Judge refuses to dismiss case of mother jailed for speaking against murder of Christian girl

Rhoda Jatau pictured with her family before her imprisonment for a WhatsApp message.
Rhoda Jatau pictured with her family before her imprisonment for a WhatsApp message. | ADF International

The trial of Rhoda Jatau, a Christian mother of five in Nigeria’s Bauchi State, will continue following a judge’s refusal to dismiss the case against her. Jatau has been in prison since last May, accused of sharing a video on WhatsApp that condemned the lynching of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, a Nigerian student killed by her classmates for sharing her Christian faith.

At a hearing last week, Jatau’s legal team argued that the prosecution had failed to establish the basic elements of their case against Rhoda, but the court still decided to proceed with the trial, said the human rights group ADF International, which is backing Jatau’s defense.

Since her arrest, Jatau has been repeatedly denied bail and held incommunicado, with only sporadic access to her lawyer and family during court appearances, the group said.

Sean Nelson, legal counsel for ADF International, criticized the ongoing prosecution and detention, calling it a “travesty of justice.”

The lead counsel for Jatau’s case, an allied lawyer with ADF International, expressed disappointment with the ruling but affirmed their readiness to defend Jatau. He emphasized the suffering endured by Rhoda and her family for over a year-and-a-half and called for continued prayers for her release.

The decision to proceed with the prosecution follows a joint allegation letter from United Nations experts to the Nigerian government. The letter, prompted by appeals from ADF International and other religious freedom advocacy groups, highlighted the threat posed by blasphemy laws to international human rights. It also drew attention to the cases of Yakubu and Jatau.

Jatau’s trial is set to resume on Dec. 19. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.

The cases of Jatau and Yakubu are among numerous instances of violence against religious minorities in Nigeria.

Of the more than 5,500 Christians killed for their faith worldwide last year, 90% were from Nigeria.

The criminalization of blasphemy in Nigeria has far-reaching implications. In a country with over 200 million people, almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, blasphemy laws exacerbate societal tensions. These laws not only punish individuals for expressing their beliefs but also silence people from sharing their faith and fuel societal violence.

Blasphemy laws have also led to brutal mob violence and severe harm to minority Muslims, Christian converts and others.

ADF International is also supporting the legal defense of Nigerian musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a Sufi Muslim sentenced to death by hanging for sharing song lyrics deemed “blasphemous” on WhatsApp. Yahaya, who has been imprisoned for over three-and-a-half years, is appealing his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, with the hope of overturning the death penalty blasphemy laws in the country. Yahaya remains in prison awaiting his appeal.

According to a previous report by the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern, Nigeria was one of the world’s top “Persecutors of the Year” for its treatment of Christians in 2021. The report stated that 50,000 to 70,000 Christians had been killed in Nigeria since 2000.

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