Rhoda Jatau, a Christian and mother of five, was charged with blasphemy in a Nigerian court yesterday for forwarding a video defending a lynched Christian student. 

During her arraignment on Monday, Jatau was officially charged with blasphemy, inciting a mob, and exciting contempt of religious creed. 

She is being tried in the northeast Nigerian state of Bauchi’s high court. Bauchi practices a form of Sharia law, under which blasphemy is a crime punishable by execution. 

Jatau, a 45-year-old medical worker, was arrested by Nigerian authorities on May 20 and has been held without the ability to communicate and without a trial for over six months, which is against both Nigerian and international law, according to religious rights advocates. 

Jatau was arrested after forwarding a video of a Muslim denouncing the mob killing of Nigerian Christian college student Deborah Emmanuel. 

The student was killed on May 12 by a lynch mob of fanatical Muslim students who accused her of blasphemy. Emmanuel was stoned and burned to death for posting to social media that Jesus had helped her do well on an exam. 

Jatau forwarded the video defending Emmanuel via Whatsapp to her work colleagues at the Primary Healthcare Board of the town of Warji. Some of her co-workers reported the video and Jatau was subsequently accused of blasphemy. 

According to local news source Light Bearer News, when news of Jatau’s actions reached the public many immediately called for her death. One Muslim group posted her photo online and called her “the one God has cursed.” 

During the riots that ensued, 15 Christians were seriously injured, and several buildings were burned down, according to Light Bearer News. Jatau herself was imprisoned by Nigeria’s Department of State Services. 

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According to Jatau’s arraignment documents, obtained by CNA from Alliance Defending Freedom  International (ADFI), she is being held responsible for the casualties and damage caused by the riots. 

The first count charges Jatau with high crimes, stating: 

“That you Rhoda Jatau of Warji Local Government Area, Bauchi State, on 20/05/2022 at 1112 hours … posted a blasphemous video clip … to the Whatsapp Platform of Warji Local Government Primary Health Care Management with intent to disturb the public peace in which the content of the video is a blasphemy of the Holy Prophet Muhammad S.A.W. as a result of which the said blasphemous video clip incited disturbance and … led to the destruction of many shops and houses.” 

Advocates for religious liberty responded with outrage over the charges leveled against Jatau by the Nigerian state. 

“It’s outrageous,” Sean Nelson of ADFI told CNA. “Rhoda was subjected to mob violence and attacks based on her peaceful expression, and now the Bauchi State government is trying to hold her responsible for the rioting of others.”

Nigeria’s laws against blasphemy have sparked criticism from human rights organizations and religious freedom advocates who say the laws authorize and encourage violence against the free expression of religious minorities. 

“No one should be persecuted for their faith or face punishment for peaceful expression,” Nelson told CNA. “Rhoda reportedly did nothing but share a video on social media condemning violence based on accusations of blasphemy. And for that, she herself is now being charged with blasphemy.” 

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Nelson called Jatau’s arraignment an “example of how far these blasphemy laws can be stretched.” According to Nelson, the charges against Jatau demonstrate how “the government allows violent mobs to act with impunity and punishes those who speak out against the mob.”

The papal organization Aid to the Church in Need, which tracks religious freedom globally, stated in its 2022 “Persecuted and Forgotten?” report that “more than 7,600 Christians [were] killed” in Nigeria between 2020 and 2022.

Persecution of Nigerian Christians has been carried out by both the Nigerian government, as in Jatau’s case, as well as non-state actors including jihadist groups Islamic State West Africa Province and Boko Haram. 

Despite the ongoing crisis, Christians’ plight in Nigeria has gone largely unnoticed by the international community, according to religious rights organizations. This month, for the second consecutive year, Nigeria was removed from the U.S. Department of State’s list of “countries of particular concern” regarding religious freedom violations.

“There is no justification for the State Department’s failure to recognize Nigeria,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a December 2 statement in response to the State Department’s exclusion of Nigeria. 

“Imprisoning individuals on charges of blasphemy is a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief as protected under international law and the Nigerian Constitution,” USCIRF commissioner Frederick A. Davie said to CNA. “The charges against Rhoda Jatau are particularly egregious, especially given that they accuse her of intent to disturb the peace while DSS [Nigerian government security agency] and state authorities have done nothing to arrest and prosecute those who incited violence against her, leading to the public security incident in question.”

“Incidents like the detention and prosecution of Rhoda Jatau will continue unless the United States imposes consequences for these violations. The U.S. government needs to apply better strategic pressure to relevant government actors in Nigeria to better protect religious freedom and prosecute those who incite violence against religious minorities,” Davie told CNA. 

Nelson pointed out that “Rhoda’s arraignment comes on the heels of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, at which the Bauchi State governor was in attendance.”

Bala Mohammed, Bauchi’s governor, and Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, were both in Washington, D.C., last week for the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit hosted by President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

“The trial against Rhoda is in flagrant violation of international law,” Nelson stated to CNA. “The international community needs to speak out strongly on her behalf until she is released. Her trial is another clear and egregious example of why Nigeria should never have been removed from the U.S.’s Countries of Particular Concern list.”

According to ADF, Jatau’s first hearing is set for Jan. 16, 2023.

This article has been updated.