21Wilberforce is spearheading a launch called The Global Defenders Network (GDN) in response to the growing need to provide legal representation and defend victims of unjust laws that violate everyone’s basic human right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). GDN is an association of individuals, organizations, and networks that will work collaboratively on individual member and group initiatives. It is hoped that, over time, this network’s activities will help reform the laws and judicial systems that have led to these violations.
The GDN seeks to incubate, accelerate and replicate innovative training for lawyers, paralegals and law students in multiple countries, with each country’s program reflecting its unique conditions. To that end, GDN will partner with local leaders who know these conditions. GDN will work with and provide training to both men and women: women are an important project focus as they often suffer from lack of representation and face barriers professionally, including in the legal profession.
The pilot project underway is in Nigeria. Objective: Experienced lawyers/mentors train young Nigerian lawyers and others to use the Constitution and other legal instruments to support religious freedom in Nigeria.
There are many threats to human rights and FoRB in Nigeria. Along with government corruption, other threats include due process protection violations including the denial of fair and open trials; arbitrary arrests and detention; violations of the right to freedom of expression; torture and inhumane incarceration, censorship; and restrictions on external investigations.
One of the greatest of these threats is the implementation of Islamic Sharia law that contravenes the Nigerian Constitution and the international human rights conventions, treaties, and standards to which Nigeria is a signatory and has committed to adhering.
Even with the challenging environment, GDN believes that there are opportunities in Nigeria to both defend victims of religious freedom violations and advance FoRB.
The Nigerian defense team headed by Kola Alapinni, senior partner at Business & Human Rights Attorneys LLC and General Counsel at The Foundation for Religious Freedom, GDN’s partner in Nigeria, has won several cases due to the strategy it has adopted: challenging the constitutionality of Sharia Court jurisdiction/competency, charges, and verdicts.
A critical case that will be soon argued before Nigeria’s Supreme Court is the appeal of the Islamic Court’s 2020 death sentence for a young musician who belongs to a religious minority in Kano State, northern Nigeria. Whatever the Supreme Court rules in this case is anticipated to have far-reaching implications for the free exercise of religion and other human rights in Nigeria. In this case, Alapinni is defending Yahaya Aminu-Sharif, a young (22-year-old at the time) studio attendant who sang a song in a WhatsApp group and, though the song was subsequently deleted, someone shared it outside the group with individuals who deemed one of the lines in the song’s lyrics to be offensive to the majority group in their Islamic culture. As word of the song spread, a mob gathered and burned down Yahaya’s family’s home, he went into hiding, and authorities arrested him later that month. No actions were taken against the protestors or those that burned down the family’s home. Yahaya was denied legal representation, and the young man was judged guilty on the religious offense of blasphemy and sentenced to death by hanging by a Sharia Court judge on August 10, 2020.
His lawyer, Alapinni, filed an appeal just a week before Yahaya’s death sentence would have been signed by the Governor of Kano State. No lawyer in the whole of Northern Nigeria was willing to defend him and the Muslim leaders had indeed forbidden any Muslim lawyer from coming to his aid.
On January 21, 2021, the Kano High Court overturned Aminu-Sharif’s conviction and sentence and ordered his case to be retried due to irregularities in the original trial, but remitted the case to the same Upper Sharia Court for retrial before another judge. However, the Court also went further and dismissed the defense’s issue regarding the incompatibility of the Sharia Law as currently being practiced vis-à-vis the Nigerian Constitution, with the Court stating that the Constitutional provision (Section 10) that prohibits a state from adopting a religion as a state religion is not a matter that can be discussed in a law court.
Alapinni’s team filed a second appeal, this time to the second highest court in Nigeria, the Court of Appeal, arguing that Yahaya should be released and not remitted for trial and that blasphemy laws are unconstitutional in Nigeria. After delays, on June 23, 2022, the defense was able to argue the appeal in Yahaya Sharif Aminu vs AG Kano State & Governor of Kano State.
On August 17, 2022, the Kano Court of Appeal in a judgment of 2-1 dismissed the defense’s appeal. The Court of Appeal overruled the Kano State High Court and held that S.10 of the Constitution is justiciable, that Sharia Law is constitutional, upheld the High Court’s decision on the legality of Shariah blasphemy law and its decision to remit the case back to the Upper Shariah Court for retrial. To these rulings there was one exception. In a dissenting vote, the Presiding Judge of Court found in the defense’s favor and voted to discharge and acquit the appellant. 
On the 31st of August 2022, the full judgment of the Court was released. Alapinni’s team has studied the judgment and is in the process of filing another appeal to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
GDN Pilot Program Highlights:
- Recruit a Select Group of Participants Nigerian mentors, experienced lawyers, and program participants, including young lawyers, students, legal clinics and paralegals – as appropriate for each project, in Nigeria
- Provide On-the-Job Training and Mentorship: Participants will be paired with experienced Nigerian attorneys
- Create Learning Cohorts: The Nigerian GDN team will organize participants into learning cohorts who will meet regularly with local trainers and facilitators
- Develop Global Expert Engagement Opportunities: The local learning cohort sessions will be supplemented by regular engagement, both in-person and virtually, with topical subject and practitioner experts based nationally and internationally
- Provide Financial support: Provide basic stipends for trainees and cover operational expenses of trainees
- Provide Training in Security: Both mentors and trainees receive program information and training on risk-mitigation, both individually and electronically
- Provide Training in Case Advocacy with the Media: Training on how to elicit media coverage
Every week, people like Yahaya in Nigeria face punishment or loss of life due to unjust laws and lack of legal representation. But you can help change that. At 21Wilberforce, we have hope that through collaboration with other NGOs we can have an impact on the ground in local communities. And today, we are asking you to be a part of that. A financial gift will help spur this program forward. Please partner with 21Wilberforce.