A Nigerian court on Wednesday ruled that Islamic religious law does not violate the constitution, dismissing a test-case challenge from a singer who was sentenced to death two years ago on the charge of blasphemy.
But in a majority decision, the court in northern Kano state also upheld a lower court's call for a retrial.
Yahaya Aminu Sharif was convicted of having shared a blasphemous message on WhatsApp and was sentenced to death in August 2020 by a sharia court. Sharif was arrested after a series of audio recordings became public where he appeared to elevate an imam above the Muslim prophet Mohammed
The high court in Kano threw out the conviction and ordered a retrial but Sharif appealed, challenging the constitutionality of the religious law.
Nigeria is divided between the largely Christian south and mostly Muslim north, with the constitution neutral on religion. Kano enforces sharia, including the death penalty against blasphemy.
Currently, the twelve northern states of Nigeria operate under two legal systems. One system, of which the Kano State High Court is a part, is based on the secular Nigerian penal code. The other is based on Sharia law.
Judge Abubakar Muazu Lamido said on Wednesday the challenge by Sharif, who has been in prison since 2020, was unfounded and was made "more out of sentiment than (in line with the) law".
"The appeal is devoid of merit and is therefore dismissed," Lamido said in a ruling delivered via Zoom.
The Kano state government also opposed the appeal which was heard in June, arguing that sharia does not violate the national charter, a view held by many in northern Nigeria.
US Christian persecution watchdog International Christian Concern (ICC) said that the situation makes it unclear who and what can be tried in Sharia court, having the potential to use Sharia law as a means of persecuting religious minorities, including northern Nigerian Christians, in the country.
“Today’s High Court ruling represents a major setback for human rights in Nigeria overall,” said Jay Church, ICC’s advocacy manager for Africa.
“For a secular court to officially recognize a Sharia court’s jurisdiction to hand down death sentences for blasphemy is the largest step backward in Nigeria’s legal system since the implementation of criminal Sharia law in 2000."
Matias Perttula, ICC’s Director of Advocacy added: “The court's decision is a strike against religious freedom in Nigeria and officially sets the legal structure for the continued persecution of Nigeria's Christians. This decision was clearly a step back for all human rights, religious freedom, and freedom as a whole for Nigeria."
In 2020, when Sharif was sentenced to death, a teenager was jailed for ten years by Kano Sharia Court over similar accusations.
The rulings drew international condemnation and the secular branch of the state's high court freed the teenager but ordered a retrial for Sharif.
Sharif's lawyer said he would study Wednesday's judgment before responding.