Lagos, Nigeria — A staunchly Muslim family in northern Nigeria has forced their son into a mental hospital for declaring himself an atheist, according to a lawyer and supporters who have started an online campaign to #FreeMubarak.
Chemical engineer Mubarak Bala, 29, alerted people to his plight with tweets allegedly from a smuggled phone that he used in the toilet of Kano city's Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, where he says he is being drugged and held against his will in a psychiatric ward.
In his tweets, Bala said on Friday his father and three uncles beat him up and his brother injected him with a sedative. He woke up 30 hours later in the hospital.
"My neck still hurts from the stranglehold of my father, and the beat(ing) of uncles dislocated my finger and arm," he said in one message.
Lawyer Muhammad Bello Shehu said Bala's father told him he committed his son for his own safety.
"He said that the reason he had to take him to the hospital is for his own security because once people got glimpse that he is denouncing the existence of God ... he could be lynched and the house set on fire," Shehu said.
Bala said that while he was sedated his family used his phone to post on Facebook that he had returned to the Muslim faith. He described his father as an Islamic leader who "can't afford to have a non-Muslim family member, so he declared me insane."
The father, Muhammad Bala, could not immediately be reached for comment. In a blog, the father describes himself as a journalist and director general of Kano state's Directorate of Societal Reorientation, one of the bodies that enforces Islamic Shariah law.
Lawyer Shehu said the son told him at a meeting in the hospital Wednesday that he "just wants to get out of there."
Bala complained that he feels weak, has lost weight and his hands are shaking from all the drugs he is being forced to take, the lawyer said.
The lawyer said the case is complicated because the father and physicians are saying that Mubarak Bala has psychological problems that predate his renunciation of Islam. The son tweeted that his family claims he has suffered a "personality change" that caused him to become an apostate.
Shehu said he is looking Wednesday for a psychiatrist who can provide an independent opinion. If that opinion is favorable, he said he could file a lawsuit because it is against Nigerian law and constitutional human rights to hold someone against their will.
Shehu was asked to represent Bala by Bamidele Adeneye, a businessman who describes himself as a humanist and who had been chatting online with Bala about atheism for some time.
Adeneye said the case is just one example of how passionate many Nigerians are about religion — be they Christians or Muslims. He said he reached out for help to a legislator and a civil rights activist but they ignored his appeal, he believes "because of the stigma, they believe that an atheist gets what he deserves."
So Adeneye turned to friends abroad and Bala's case now is being pursued by the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union, which has started an online petition.
"It appears that a warped notion of family honor is the motivation to pressure Bala in this appalling manner, to conform to religious views that he simply doesn't hold. This is an abhorrent violation of his freedom of thought and belief," the union's Bob Churchill said in a statement posted online.
Nigeria confronts an Islamic uprising that has killed thousands over the past five years with insurgents demanding the West African nation, which has Africa's biggest economy and is its biggest oil producer, be made into an Islamic state. Nigeria's 170 million people are almost equally divided between Muslims who dominate the north and Christians in the south.