Omar Farouq had an argument last year with a colleague that would change his life.
Insults were exchanged in the heat of the moment, he admits, but Farouq, a teenager, thought nothing of the exchange until he was summoned to the police station and charged with blasphemy against God.
When word got out about the nature of his arrest, an angry mob descended on Farouq’s family home forcing his mother to flee to a neighboring village, his lawyer said.
Farouq, who was then 16, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor by a Sharia court, in Kano, northern Nigeria.
However, his conviction was overturned on appeal by the Kano State High Court on January 22 because Farouq did not have legal representation at his first trial, his counsel Kola Alapinni told CNN.
“I’m delighted, I’m in a joyous mood. And I’m grateful to all those who helped and lent support for this outcome with the grace of Allah,” Farouq, now 17, told CNN in his first interview following his release.
Alapinni was instrumental in Farouq’s release from prison.
His Foundation for Religious Freedom discovered and got involved in Farouq’s case while working on an appeal for Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy at the Kano Upper Sharia Court.
“We found out they were convicted on the same day, by the same judge, in the same court, for blasphemy and we found out no one was talking about Omar, so we had to move quickly to file an appeal for him,” he said.
“Blasphemy is not recognized by Nigerian law. It is inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria.”
Kano’s High Court stated that Farouq’s conviction as a minor “was done in error and … is hereby set aside and the Defendant is hereby discharged and acquitted.”
An ‘unjust’ punishment
Farouq says he feels aggrieved as that the Sharia court was “unjust” to him.
Officials for the Sharia court have not commented on Farouq’s case, and efforts to reach them have been unsuccessful. CNN also contacted Kano state government for comment but has yet to receive a response.
In all, Farouq spent more than five months locked up without access to family or lawyers.
His family said they were not informed about the details of his case and did not even know what date his court hearing was held.
“They were not fair to us,” his uncle Umar Aliyu told CNN. “When they took this boy to court, they didn’t tell us the court they took him to… and they refused to tell us the date slated for the judgment. They kept chasing us away. I went to the Hisbah office pleading with the interrogator, but he told me to leave his office. I left hurt and close to tears, extremely sad.”
The family also found out from media reports that Farouq had been convicted and sentenced, Aliyu said.
Aliyu recalls being “enveloped with sadness,” every time he thought about his nephew locked up with no contact with his family.
“Everyone… was disturbed very much, we were really sad. We just had to console each other, counseling some to take it as something ordained by Allah… telling them to be patient. This provided some emotional relief.
“For the period he was in prison every time I thought about him, I became worried. Every time I thought about him sadness would envelop me.”
‘His life is in danger’
Now that Farouq has been freed, he says he is determined to finish his education and has ambitions to enter politics to fight against the kind of injustice he faced.
“I pray Allah will bless me to become governor or President to reform the Sharia and to end the injustice on my fellow citizens and myself since in some court cases the offense doesn’t warrant the harsh judgment handed down. This is deprivation of your right, oppression, and abuse,” he said.
Although his conviction was overturned, Farouq’s life remains in danger from some fanatics who see his release as an affront, according to his lawyer.
Alapinni told CNN how terrified Farouq was when he turned up to meet him outside the prison when he was released.
“He himself knows he is in danger because when we tried to pick him from prison…you could see the fear in his face, he didn’t even want to follow us…everybody had told him that if he steps out of the prison walls he will be killed,” Alapinni said.
“We now need to arrange safe passage for him. His life is in danger in Kano – it will never be the same,” he said.