A court in northern Nigeria has acquitted a minor at an appeal hearing after he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison with menial labour under Islamic law in a conviction that caused a global outcry.
In August, a sharia court in the northern city of Kano handed Omar Farouq the jail term following accusations that he made blasphemous comments in an argument. The judges who acquitted him yesterday said he was 17 at the time of his sentencing and not 13 as stated in previous hearings.
His initial conviction was condemned by rights groups, the United Nations and the head of Poland’s Auschwitz Memorial who said he and others would volunteer to each serve a month of the boy’s prison sentence.
Nigeria is roughly evenly split between a predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south. Sharia, or Islamic religious law is applied in 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states where sharia courts operate alongside secular ones.
Two judges at the appeal section of the secular high court in Kano on Thursday ruled that Farouq should be acquitted and the case discharged, meaning he cannot be recharged.
They made the ruling, they said, because Farouq was a minor who lacked proper legal representation in the sharia court.
They also ruled on the appeal lodged against the sharia conviction of Yahaya Aminu Sharif, a man sentenced to death by Kano’s Islamic court for allegedly sharing a blasphemous message on WhatsApp. His conviction was quashed but the judges ordered a retrial at the sharia court.
“Their lives will never be the same again,” said Kola Alapinni, a defence lawyer representing both defendants. He said it would not be safe for Farouq to remain in Kano and Sharif was likely to remain in custody until his retrial was heard.
Protesters in Kano destroyed Sharif’s home last year, forcing his family to flee. Farouq’s parents disassociated themselves from him due to the shame caused by the case, according to Alapinni, who said the boy’s uncle was the only relative to have been in regular contact with the legal team.
Despite Thursday’s rulings by the state court, the cases could be taken to the federal court of appeal if further appeals are lodged. Lawyers for the prosecution declined to comment in response to the rulings.
The convictions last year sparked a debate about sharia’s compatibility with Nigeria’s secular constitution.
“It concerns Islamic law and not any other law,” said businessman Muhammad Salihu, arguing that secular courts should not hear appeals against sharia convictions.