An Islamic court in Kano, northern Nigeria, has sentenced a Muslim cleric to death for blasphemy against Islam`s holiest figure, the Prophet Mohammed, prosecutors and justice officials said on Tuesday.
"The Sharia court found Abdul Nyass guilty of blasphemy against the Prophet, which is punishable with death in accordance with the provisions of the Sharia legal system Kano state operates," prosecutor Lamido Abba Soron-Dinki told AFP.
"The convict had legal representation throughout the trial which was done in secret to avoid a repeat of the mob action that disrupted a court session on the case."
Nyass drew public outrage in May last year when he made derogatory remarks about the Prophet to followers as they marked the birthday of the former leader of the Tijaniyya Sufi order, Ibrahim Nyass.
An angry crowd attacked the ceremony in the Makwarari district of Kano and later burnt down Abdul Nyass` home, police said at the time.
Abdul Nyass belongs to a separate branch of Tijaniyya that includes beliefs considered heretical because of their different interpretation of some basic Islamic principles.
He fled in the wake of the violence while nine of his followers were arrested and charged before a Sharia court in the city in June last year. Five of them were later sentenced to death and have since launched appeals, while four were acquitted.
The trial of the nine followers was also held in secret to avoid violence, after crowds set fire to a section of the Sharia court when they first appeared. Nyass` comments, made during a religious ceremony, sparked anger and violence across Kano, which is a historic seat of Islamic scholarship. The cleric was arrested last August in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, where he was in hiding. He was brought back to Kano and charged, said Soron-Dinki. "He has up to a month to appeal the sentence and it is most likely he is going for appeal," he added.
Nyass` lawyer declined to comment and concealed his identity for fear of reprisals.
Kano`s justice commissioner Haruna Mohammed Falali welcomed the death sentence and said the state government would pursue the matter "to its legal conclusion".
"It is their right to appeal, but we will follow this case through all the legal appeal stages and ensure the sentence is carried out," he said.
Sharia courts in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria have handed down death sentences for adultery, murder and homosexuality since they were set up in the early 2000s.
But to date, no executions have been carried out.
Twelve states in the north operate Islamic courts, which run parallel to the state and federal justice system.