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Influential Somali academic in hiding after 'blasphemy' death threats

Prof. Mahmoud Jama Ahmed fears for his life [Humanists International]

Date of publication: 12 March, 2020

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Activists are urging authorities to protect Prof. Mahmoud Jama Ahmed, who has received death threats.
An influential Somali academic and social reformer is in hiding due to threats to his life, after one of the country's leading Muslim scholars called for his killing over allegations of blasphemy.

Prof. Mahmoud Jama Ahmed was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail in 2019 for "blasphemy" but was released in January after a presidential pardon.

Activists say Ahmed was forced into hiding after prominent imam, Adam Sunna, threatened his life during Friday prayers on 6 March.

"Killing this apostate is bad for him in this life but he will benefit from it in the afterlife," he said, according to Humanists International.

Ahmed is unable to leave his hideout to work due to the dangers if he appears in public, having to rely on financial assistance from Humanists International to survive.

The advocacy group considers the 34-year-old intellectual to be at "extremely high-risk of a violent attack".

Humanists International's representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Kacem El Ghazzali, highlighted his case on Wednesday.

"Mahmoud is a committed professor and author who has advocated humanist values and freedom of speech in Somalia," El Ghazalli told The New Arab in a statement.

"He is one of the Somali intellectuals who studied abroad but decided to return to Somali and contribute to the rebuilding of his country. Defending him and his right to freedom of speech is what Somalia really needs."

Humanists International Chief Executive, Gary McLelland, said that pressure needs to be applied on the Somali government to protect the academic.

"We are urging all our supporters around the world to join us in putting pressure on the Somali authorities to protect Mahmoud. There is never any justification for the use of so-called 'blasphemy' laws, but this case is even more egregious when we consider the mild statement at the heart of this accusation, from a prominent Somali academic," he said in a statement.

"We will not allow him to be murdered with impunity by religious bullies."

Activists believe that Ahmed was targeted due to his advocacy for controversial social reforms in Somalia.

Ahmed introduced three draft laws against tribalism and discrimination and hosted talk shows on national television on political and social issues.

Ahmed also co-authored sections of the national curriculum taught in Somali schools.

In 2019, Ahmed authored two books - one called "Are You Free?" and another on freedom of press - which received a hostile reception from some Somalis due to contentious nature of some of the content.

Allegations of blasphemy relate to a Facebook post when he questioned the validity of rain prayers - known as Salat Al-Istisqa in Islam - in Somalia.

Police then detained Ahmed for a month, where he said he was subjected to ill-treatment and death threats by officers.

In April, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for blasphemy but was eventually released after spending 307 days behind bars and banned from teaching for five years.

Since he left prison, he has been unable to leave his home or hideouts due to threats to his life.

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