Mubarak Bala, 29, who holds a degree in chemical engineering and is a resident of the primarily Muslim Kano state in northern Nigeria, has been held and medicated against his will at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital since June 13.
According to IHEU, Bala was committed to a mental institution after he told his Muslim family that he did not believe in God.
His family then sought the advice of two doctors; the first gave him a clean bill of health, while the second chalked up his atheism to a "personality change."
Bala's family allegedly told this doctor that Bala had been suffering delusions, including referring to himself as a "governor," according to The Independent.
Bala was reportedly beaten by his father and uncles, injected with a sedative, and awoke in the mental institution, according to the Associated Press. Bala was able to contact human rights organizations with emails and texts sent on a smuggled phone.
In one of his emails, Bala wrote, "And the biggest evidence of my mental illness was large blasphemies and denial of ‘history’ of Adam, and apostacy [sic], to which the doctor said was a personality change, that everyone needs a God, that even in Japan they have a God. And my brother added that all the atheists I see have had mental illness at some point in their life,” according to a statement on IHEU's website.
“Kano is a Sharia state and there are many similar cases occurring, where people are forcefully oppressed just because of their beliefs or for conservative religious reasons, or for the 'honour' of their family," Bamidele Adeneye, secretary of IHEU member organization Lagos Humanists, told IHEU. "Often though you only hear about it afterwards, if at all. This is a rare chance to intervene while someone is in dire need and is still alive.”
Bala is now represented by a lawyer working to get him out of the mental hospital.
Kano is one of 12 northern Nigerian states that have implemented Sharia criminal law since the defeat of Nigeria's military dictatorship in 2000.
While suicide is a crime under Sharia law, mental illness is not generally criminalized.
Involuntary confinement, which is still legal in Nigeria's mental health system, was introduced under British colonial rule in the early 19th century, at a time when Western mental health largely focused only on confinement of patients.
A number of advocacy groups, including Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRWA), have been pressuring the Nigerian government in recent years to adopt an overhaul of the country's antiquated mental health system.
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Photo via International Humanist and Ethical Union