Postgrad who stopped singer's death sentence wins US award

  • Date

    Tue 6 Feb 24

Essex postgraduate Kola Alapinni with his US Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Award

An Essex postgraduate who helped reverse a death sentence handed to a singer accused of blasphemy has earned special recognition by the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken.

Kola Alapinni has been providing pro-bono legal defence in a number of high-profile blasphemy cases in Kano, Northern Nigeria, which have also seen him successfully overturn a lengthy prison sentence for a 13-year-old boy.

Kola has received the US Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Award for his outstanding work and courage, which has seen him defy the threat of mob violence when taking on cases.

He said: “Receiving the award is a culmination and validation of a dogged and relentless fight which commenced four years ago when we entered representation in two landmark religious freedom appeal cases in Nigeria.

“The award signifies that we must have done something right by challenging the constitutionality of the Sharia Penal Code Law of Kano State and letting the world know that it has no place in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, diverse and complex country like Nigeria.”

Kola, who studied LLM International Human Rights Law at Essex in 2006, is now hoping to secure freedom for Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, the Muslim singer who was originally sentenced to death in 2020.

The case has now reached Nigeria’s Supreme Court and could set a legal precedent in future blasphemy cases if successful. Kola believes that his work challenges the government to live up to its responsibility, given the environment where Islamic clerics have probably placed a fatwa banning any Muslim lawyer from representing convicts or accused persons.

The pro-bono work also insures the poorest people in Kano, who are typically the only victims of the harsh laws under the Sharia Penal Code, have access to legal aid that they would otherwise be unable to afford.

“The work we do can spell the difference between life and death,” Kola said.

“Representing individuals appealing sentences delivered under the Sharia Penal Code is a calling and it isn’t made for every lawyer.

“The constant fear of reprisal attacks from mobs is the beginning of wisdom for many of our colleagues. They have their families and businesses in Northern Nigeria to worry about.

“We have had an instance 2015 where a mob had gone ahead to burn down a police station and a court room during a trial of alleged blasphemers. So, jungle justice is a real threat.”

He added: “Nigeria is going through a very critical time.

“Our country is facing a battle for its soul and one of the fundamental ways to restore the rule of law and order is to ensure and guarantee our religious freedom as clearly spelt out and enshrined in our constitution.”