Somali Prof. Ahmed, a victim of blasphemy laws, urgently needs a humanitarian visa
To the attention of Swiss Ambassador Daniel Hunn,
Human Rights Without Frontiers International (HRWF) is a Brussels-based NGO that seeks to shape European and international policy in ways that strengthen democracy, uphold the rule of law and protect human rights globally. One of its programmes focuses on promoting and defending the universal right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).
Over the years, HRWF has advocated for the end of blasphemy laws and individual cases where people have been imprisoned, threatened with violence, or persecuted because of their difference in or change of belief.
HRWF and the signatories to this letter are writing in support of Mahmoud Jama Ahmed’s application for a humanitarian visa for himself and his family. He is currently living in hiding in Ethiopia with his wife and three young children.
Blasphemy laws in Somalia and Ethiopia
The Somali penal code of 1963 ‘criminalizes blasphemy and defamation of Islam, which carry fines of up to two years in prison.’ However, there are also concerns of violence towards individuals who are perceived to be anti-Islam in a country that has several regions under the control of the violent terrorist group Al-Shabaab. The tactics of this group include harassing, maiming or killing people who are suspected of converting from Islam or who are seen as critical of Islam.
Al-Shabaab is still active in Somalia, and Professor Ahmed has always expressed extreme concern regarding lone-acting Islamists. However, on 15 July 2020, Professor Ahmed informed HRWF that he is now ‘at the top [of the] list of the wanted people by the Somali terrorists group (Al-shabaab).’ He believes Al-Shabaab is targeting him because they want to make an example of him.
Professor Ahmed, who was already a well-known public figure due to his involvement in local politics in 2012 and his many appearances on talk shows, has become a symbol for many Somalis of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. He reports that many now use quotes from his book Are you Free? to express their own critiques of religious issues. This has further fuelled the wrath of Al-Shabaab and escalated the danger he is in should he ever be found.
Ethiopia also has blasphemy laws in place, and Al-Shabaab terrorists from Somalia are a very real threat there as well.
Professor Ahmed’s case
Professor Ahmed was a professor of humanities and social sciences at the University of Hargeisa in Hargesia, the capital of Somaliland. He lectured there from 2013 to 21 March 2019, when he was arrested for a Facebook post that authorities deemed ‘blasphemy.’ He was then sentenced on 30 April 2019 to 2 1/2 years in prison.
After spending 10 months and seven days in prison, Professor Ahmed received conditional presidential amnesty and was released on 27 January 2020. However, the conditions of his release entail severe limitations on his freedom. He cannot disseminate his thoughts, whether in writing or spoken privately or publicly, and he is prohibited from resuming teaching at the university for a period of five years. The authorities justified these restrictions by claiming that he disturbed the public order and thus could have a negative influence on his students.
Before receiving the conviction of blasphemy, Professor Ahmed had written and spoken about secularism, democracy and human rights. His most recent book, titled Are you free? and published in 2019, provides a theoretical framework to argue for FoRB, freedom of expression, the right to participate in public affairs, women's rights and children’s rights.
During his trial for these blasphemy charges, the Public Prosecution mentioned this book and its promotion of a philosophy of human rights.
He has published other books and articles about the importance of recognising and respecting human dignity and individual freedoms, such as: Basic Civic Education (2014), Enlightenment (2016), What are the Obstacles for Somalis in terms of State Formation and Development? (2018), and Political Islam (2018).
In the Facebook post that led to his conviction in April 2019, Professor Ahmed commented on the need to take a more proactive approach to droughts in Somalia. These droughts have repeatedly occurred in certain regions over the years, killing millions of livestock and forcing millions of Somalis to migrate due to the threat of starvation. He challenged the current strategy being used to prevent and combat these droughts, which is to pray.
Professor Ahmed had received death threats since the publication of his book Are you Free? in February 2019, but, after this Facebook post in March 2019, the threats to his life escalated.
Now that he has been formally convicted of blasphemy, he is at risk from both the state and non-state actors.
He has been banned from clerical work or working as a professor and cannot share his thoughts, beliefs or knowledge in any form otherwise he risks more jailtime or even the death sentence. This creates a constant state of precarity and grants Somali authorities legitimisation for any future action against him. Considering that before his trial began ‘he suffered months of illegal detention, physical harassment, searches and various forms of intimidation’ and that he was subjected to discrimination and physical harassment by prison authorities while serving his sentence, further state action against him is a serious concern.
Despite the likelihood that the Somali authorities convicted and imprisoned Professor Ahmed on blasphemy charges as a pretext to silence him for his political and human rights activism, he now has a record of blasphemy. This means that he is considered ‘anti-Islam’ by the general public.
A consequence of this is the potential for violence or death by individuals retaliating. In fact, after Professor Ahmed was arrested, someone sent his wife an email saying: ‘once your husband leaves prison I will kill him.’
Furthermore, he reached out to HRWF on 2 March 2020 about an alarming, public death threat from Preacher Adam Sunnah. During a Friday prayer sermon, this preacher demanded Professor Ahmed’s death, claiming that that is the true justice he deserved. This preacher has been imprisoned several times in the past on terrorism charges. He begins this attack against Professor Ahmed at minute 28 in this video: https://youtu.be/vQNRJS37fq8.
Following this threat to his life, on 8 March 2020, Professor Ahmed fled to Ethiopia with his wife and three young children.
In May 2020, Professor Ahmed was successfully awarded a Relief Grant by Prisoners of Conscience. HRWF submitted an application for this financial assistance on his behalf, and he was approved due to the persecution he has faced and hardship he continues to experience. Since he is forbidden from working and must live in hiding, his family do not have any source of income except for financial assistance from international organisations, making his case even more urgent.
HRWF believes that academic Mahmoud Jama Ahmed has a legitimate right to protection under Switzerland’s humanitarian visa programme due to the severe risks he faces in Somalia, which include arrest, imprisonment, persecution and violence. As he does not have legal status in Ethiopia, he could be forcibly returned to Somalia. Additionally, HRWF does not consider Professor Ahmed to be safe while he remains in Ethiopia because of the grave threat of Al-Shabaab terrorists.
The undersigned look forward to your immediate attention to this matter and thank you for your time.
AFN - All Faiths Network (UK) http://www.allfaithsnetwork.org
CAP-LC – Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience (France) http://www.coordiap.com/
CESNUR – Center for Studies on New Religions (Italy) https://www.cesnur.org
EIFRF – European Inter-Religious Forum for Religious Freedom (Belgium)https://www.eifrf-articles.org
FOB – European Federation for Freedom of Belief (Italy) https://freedomofbelief.net
FOREF – Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (Austria) https://foref-europe.org
FVG – Faculty for Comparative Study of Religions and Humanism (Belgium) http://antwerpfvg.org
HRWF – Human Rights Without Frontiers (Belgium) https://hrwf.eu
LIREC – Center for Studies on Freedom of Belief, Religion and Conscience (Italy) https://lirec.net
Noodt Foundation - Gerard Noodt Foundation for Freedom of Religion or Belief (The Netherlands) http://noodt.org/
ORLIR – International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees (Lithuania) https://www.orlir.org
PoC - Prisoners of Conscience (UK) https://www.prisonersofconscience.org/
For more information, please contact Brianna Hertford, Programme Manager at HRWF, by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Al Shabaab claimed a car bomb as recently as 8 August 2020 that killed 8 soldiers in Somalia: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/08/mogadishu-somalia-car-bomb-soldiers-military-base-al-shabab.
 In 2012, he published a book about Hargeisa’s development and brought three bills which combatted tribalism and discrimination in Somaliland to the Secretary-General of the Parliament. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trSL5YNPQSs&feature=youtu.be. That same year, he was the National Party’s candidate for Mayor of Hargeisa. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qkNbt7hFls&feature=youtu.be.
 The titles of these publications have been translated by Humanists International.
 The Public Prosecution called for the death sentence in April 2019, but fortunately the court sentenced him to jail time instead: https://humanists.international/2020/03/protect-mahmoud-the-somali-professor-accused-of-blasphemy-for-a-facebook-post/.