Head of Auschwitz Memorial Seeks Easing of Nigerian Boy’s Prison Sentence

The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland has asked the Nigerian President to pardon a teenager who was sentenced to 10 years in minor labor for a blasphemous conviction.

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

“He should not be exposed to the loss of all his youth for the rest of his life, deprived of his possibilities and physically, emotionally and educationally stigmatized,” wrote the director Piotr Cywinski in an open letter about Omar Farouq. A 13-year-old boy convicted of blaspheming Allah in an argument with a friend.

Since the boy’s verdict was passed in August by a Sharia court in Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city, the case has been condemned by human rights groups, including the United Nations, who say it violates international treaties on the welfare of children. The same court was also under scrutiny on Monday when UN legal experts called for the release of a 22-year-old musician, whom it sentenced to death for blasphemy.

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

For Mr. Cywinski, who oversees the state monument in 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 shameful judgment for humanity,” wrote Cywinski in his letter addressed to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and published on Friday.

If the boy were not pardoned, Mr Cywinski wrote, the principal and 119 other adult volunteers from around the world would each sit in prison for a month to explain the boy’s 120-month sentence.

Reached by phone on Monday, Mr Cywinski said he was inspired to act after reading the media about Omar’s case last week. Mr Cywinski recalled that Mr Buhari visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in 2018 to pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, and hoped that a call to pardon the boy could resonate with the Nigerian leader.

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

“We are often asked to like, share, retweet and sign a petition online,” said Cywinski. “I wanted to do more, a little more.”

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

Sunni Islam is the largest religion in about a third of the Nigerian states. In addition to the country’s constitutional judiciary, there are also Sharia courts. The crime of blasphemy, defined as “publicly insulting” a person’s religion, can be sentenced to death under Sharia law.

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

Mr Cywinski’s plea echoed the remarks earlier this month by Peter Hawkins, UNICEF representative in Nigeria, who said Omar’s judgment “negates all of the fundamental principles of children’s rights and justice that Nigeria – and implicitly Kano State – has endorsed “.

On Monday, United Nations legal experts also appealed to the Nigerian government to release Yahaya Sharif, a 22-year-old musician who was sentenced to death by the Kano Court for distributing a song he had composed, which critics say was a Senegalese imam towered over the Prophet Muhammad.

Another Kano man, Mubarak Bala, an atheist who heads the Humanist Association of Nigeria, disappeared into police custody this spring after labeling Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist.

In some cases, public mobs have taken matters into their own hands – they burned Mr. Sharif’s house and even killed others accused of blasphemy.

But Mr Cywinski said he too has had growing support from around the world since sharing his letter on Friday. While he wouldn’t say exactly how many people had volunteered to serve part of Omar’s sentence, one thing was clear: it was over 120.

“We are really impressed with the humanity around us,” he said in the telephone interview. “Now we have to see if it is enough to give this very, very young child freedom.”