Threat of prison awaits Christian mother granted bail in Nigeria

By Christian Daily International / Morning Star News |
Rhoda Jatau could face up to 10 years in prison under Nigeria's blasphemy law.
Rhoda Jatau could face up to 10 years in prison under Nigeria's blasphemy law. | (ADF International)

A Christian woman charged under Nigeria’s blasphemy law has been released on bail after 19 months, but she faces the threat of 10 years in prison for allegedly sharing a social media post about the murder of a Christian woman, sources said.

Rhoda Jatau, a 45-year-old mother of five, was released on bail on Saturday (Dec. 9) following pressure from Nigerian Christian leaders and international rights advocates. Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF) is supporting her Nigerian defense attorney.

“After 19 long months in prison, we are happy that Rhoda finally has been released on bail,” ADF International’s allied lawyer in Nigeria said in a press statement. “We thank all who have been praying for Rhoda, and we ask for your continued prayers as her case continues.”   

A judge of the Bauchi State High Court of Justice granted bail after Jatau was jailed in May 2022 for allegedly sharing a video on WhatsApp condemning the killing of Deborah Emmanuel Samuel, a Nigerian university student who was set on fire and killed by her classmates for sharing her Christian faith.

Jatau had been repeatedly denied bail and detained incommunicado, with only intermittent access to legal counsel and family members during court appearances, according to ADF International.

“We are glad to see that Rhoda Jatau finally has been granted bail after being denied it for so long,” Sean Nelson, legal counsel for ADF International, said in a press statement. “No person should be punished for peaceful expression, and international religious freedom advocates must continue to speak up on Rhoda’s behalf. We will continue to seek justice for Rhoda, and we are hopeful that the unjust charges against her will be dropped completely.”  

Previously a judge in Bauchi state had refused to dismiss the case after a “no case submission” filed by Jatau’s lawyers, who argued that prosecutors had not established the basic elements of their case against her.

In response to appeals from ADF International and other religious freedom advocacy organizations, United Nations officials sent a joint allegation letter to the Nigerian government earlier this year. The letter emphasized the danger of blasphemy laws as a violation of international human rights and called attention to Jatau’s unjust imprisonment, according to ADF International.   

Jatau’s trial was scheduled to resume on Tuesday (Dec. 19), but holiday schedules could push the next court date into 2024, according to ADF International.

The Rev. Abraham Damina Dumus, head of the CAN Bauchi State Chapter.
The Rev. Abraham Damina Dumus, head of the CAN Bauchi State Chapter. | (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

Along with appeals from ADF, the United Nations and other advocacy organizations, Christian leaders in Bauchi state worked on her behalf, said the Rev. Abraham Damina Dumus, chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Bauchi State.

“The leadership of CAN in Bauchi were invited on Dec. 8 to meet with state government officials and authorities of security agencies, where we discussed the case extensively, and it was resolved that the state attorney general should handle the issue and grant the woman bail,” Dumas said. “And on Dec. 9, her lawyer was invited by the court’s registrar, and it was at this point that she was granted bail.”

Christian leaders in Bauchi state had made prior efforts to obtain her release. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) had requested her release since the alleged offenses were bailable offenses, but the court declined, Dumas said.

“This caused an uproar from Christians across the country, and we Christian leaders were indicted by Christians for not doing enough to get Rhoda Jatau released from detention,” Dumas said. “However, many didn’t know we were silently working in all fronts to get her released.”

After meeting with national CAN leaders, Christian leaders in Nigeria on Dec. 4 wrote to the Bauchi state governor requesting his intervention for bail, he said.

A Bauchi attorney who has been following the case, Catherine Yila Kwaltings, told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News that efforts to obtain Jatau’s release on bail suffered a setback when her previous attorney from the Christian Lawyers Association of Nigeria died in June from a brain tumor.

Jatau was charged with religious insult and public disturbance. A copy of the court charges against her states that on May 20, 2022, she “posted a video which disparages Allah, Prophet Muhammad, his parents and the entire Muslim community to a Warji group (WhatsApp) of Primary Healthcare Authority of Warji Local Government Area with the intent to cause religious crisis. You, therefore, committed the aforestated offense contrary to Sections 114, 210 of the Penal Code Law and Section 24 subsection 15(b) of Cybercrime Prohibition Prevention Act 2015 Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

The charges are punishable by up to 10 years in prison, Kwaltings said.

Jatau was working as head of Primary Healthcare Centre in Warji, where she was part of her employer’s WhatsApp group when Christian student Samuel was killed on May 12, 2022 in Sokoto, which prompted a national and global outcry against violence against Christians, Dumas said.  

“A video clip emanated from a person in Ghana, a West African country, condemning the killing of Deborah Samuel,” Dumas said. “The video was widely circulated on WhatsApp. Someone sent this video clip to Rhoda Jatau’s WhatsApp account.”

Jatau’s daughter took her phone to a roadside shop to be charged, as there was power outage in Warji, he said.

“It is suspected that a local Muslim in whose shop the phone was taken for charging saw the video clip in Rhoda Jatau’s phone, and then mischievously sent the video clip to other people’s WhatsApp platforms using Rhoda Jatau’s phone,” Dumas said. “The video clip caused an uproar in Warji town, leading to Muslims accusing Rhoda Jatau of blasphemy against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad.”

Jatau’s Muslim colleagues at her workplace viewed the video clip and saw an opportunity to accuse her, since they were upset that a Christian woman headed a health facility whose staff members were mainly Muslim men working under her, Dumas said.

“These Muslims at her workplace were the ones who instigated other local Muslims in Warji town against her,” he said. “The Muslims attacked the ECWA [Evangelical Church Winning All] local congregation where Rhoda Jatau was in worship service with other Christian members of the church. She was eventually rescued and taken away from the town.”

The ECWA church building was destroyed along with homes of other Christians in Warji town, and some Christians were injured, he said, adding that Jatau was arrested by personnel of the Department of State Services, the government’s secret service.

“The DSS Bauchi state director called me and notified me about her arrest,” Dumas said. “He said Rhoda Jatau was being kept in protective custody, as the issue had created tensions across Bauchi state. They said they were detaining her for her safety and that of other Christians. Rhoda Jatau was eventually taken to a State High Court here in Bauchi for trial.”

At this writing neither Dumas nor attorney Kwaltings knew of Jatau’s whereabouts following her release, though Kwaltings said that she was transferred from Warji Local Government Area.

Dumus said Jatau has an excellent reputation among her colleagues and patients under her care.

“We have received positive testimonies about her from her place of work and even from some other Muslims about her person,” he told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “She’s diligent and humble. A lot of her patients in the hospital where she works were crying over her plight, and surprisingly, most of these patients are Muslims.”

In the 2023 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, Nigeria jumped to sixth place, its highest ranking ever, from No. 7 the previous year.

In a country of more than 200 million split nearly evenly between Christians and Muslims, blasphemy laws are a significant driver of societal tensions, according to ADF International.

“These laws punish the innocent for expressing their beliefs, silence people from sharing their faith, and perpetuate societal violence,” according to an ADF International statement. “Blasphemy laws throughout Nigeria encourage brutal mob violence and inflict severe harm on minority Muslims, Christian converts, and others.”