Head of Auschwitz Memorial seeks easing of Nigerian boy's prison sentence

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Head of Auschwitz Memorial seeks easing of Nigerian boy's prison sentence
Visitors walk below the gate with its inscription "Work sets you free". BARTOSZ SIEDLIK / AFP.

by Isabella Kwai

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland has asked Nigeria’s president to pardon a teenager who was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment with menial labor over a blasphemy conviction.

And if that doesn’t happen, he also offered to serve part of the boy’s sentence.

“He should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities and stigmatized physically, emotionally and educationally for the rest of his life,” the director, Piotr Cywinski, wrote in an open letter regarding Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy who was convicted on charges that he had blasphemed Allah in an argument with a friend.

Since the boy’s sentence was issued in August by a Shariah court in Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city, the case has been condemned by human rights groups, including the United Nations, who say that it violates international agreements on child welfare. The same court also came under scrutiny on Monday when U.N. rights experts called for the release of a 22-year-old musician whom it sentenced to death over a blasphemy charge.

In Omar’s case, his lawyer, Kola Alapinni, said on Twitter this month that he had filed an appeal against the judgment, calling it a violation of the country’s constitution and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

For Cywinski, who oversees the state memorial at Auschwitz, where countless children were imprisoned and murdered by the German Nazi regime, Omar’s case struck a painful chord.

“I cannot remain indifferent to this disgraceful sentence for humanity,” Cywinski wrote in his letter, which was addressed to President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and made public on Friday.

If the boy was not pardoned, Cywinski wrote, the director and 119 other adult volunteers from around the world would each serve a month in prison to account for the boy’s 120-month sentence.

Reached by telephone on Monday, Cywinski said that he had been inspired to act after reading about Omar’s case in the media last week. Recalling that Buhari visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in 2018 to pay tribute to victims of the Holocaust, Cywinski said he hoped that an appeal to pardon the boy might resonate with the Nigerian leader.

He also said it was a chance to learn from the past and fight injustice.

“Many times we are asked to like, unlike, to share, to retweet and sign a petition online,” Cywinski said. “I wanted to do more something more.”

A spokesman for Buhari did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Salihu Tanko Yakasia, a special adviser to Kano’s governor, said that he had seen the letter on social media, according to Reuters, and that “the position of Kano state government remains the decision of the Shariah court.”

Sunni Islam is the largest religion in about a third of Nigeria’s states, with Shariah courts operating in addition to the country’s constitutional judiciary. The crime of blasphemy, defined as a “public insult” to a person’s religion, can carry a death sentence under Shariah law.

Nigeria’s own blasphemy laws appear to contradict its constitution, which entitles its citizens to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the right to freedom of expression.

Cywinski’s plea echoed remarks this month by Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Nigeria, who said that Omar’s sentence “negates all core underlying principles of child rights and child justice that Nigeria — and by implication, Kano state — has signed on to.”

On Monday, U.N. rights experts also appealed to Nigeria’s government for the release of Yahaya Sharif, a 22-year-old musician who was sentenced to death by the Kano court for circulating a song he had composed that critics said elevated a Senegalese imam above the Prophet Muhammad.

Another Kano man, Mubarak Bala, an atheist who is head of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, disappeared in police custody this spring after calling the Prophet Muhammad a terrorist.

In some cases, public mobs have taken matters into their own hands — burning down Sharif’s home and even killing others accused of blasphemy.

But Cywinski said that he, too, had met with an upswell of support from around the world since sharing his letter on Friday. Although he would not specify exactly how many people had volunteered to serve part of Omar’s sentence, one thing was clear: It surpassed 120.

“We are really impressed by the humanity around us,” he said in the telephone interview. “Now we have to see if it will be enough to get freedom to this very, very young kid.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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