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25 Sep 2003 12:27
A Nigerian Islamic appeal court on Thursday cleared single mother Amina Lawal of adultery, for which she had been sentenced to be stoned to death.
In a split verdict a panel of five judges at the Sharia Appeal Court in the northern city of Katsina found in favour of the 31-year-old mother of four at her second bid to get the sentence lifted.
Earlier, lawyers for Amina Lawal said they were confident of an acquittal. If the sentence had been carried out, the 32-year-old would have become the first woman stoned to death since 12 northern states first began adopting strict Islamic law, or Shariah, in 1999.
The case drew sharp criticism from international rights groups.
President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government and world leaders called for Lawal to be spared.
Few believed the brutal sentence—in which Lawal would be buried up to her neck in sand and executed by stoning—would ever be carried out.
“We think the death penalty for adultery is contrary to the Nigerian Constitution,” said Francois Cantier, a lawyer with French group Avocats Sans FrontiÃ¨res, or Lawyers without Borders, who was advising the defense.
“We think that death by stoning is contrary to international treaties against torture which Nigeria has ratified. We think that death by stoning is degrading human treatment.”
Lawal was first convicted in March 2002 following the birth of her daughter two years after she divorced her husband.
Judges rejected Lawal’s first appeal in August 2002.
The introduction of strict Islamic law in a dozen northern states triggered violent clashes between Christians and Muslims that killed thousands.
Five people apart from Lawal have been sentenced to stoning deaths so far. Two have been acquitted, and two others—a pair of lovers—are still awaiting rulings.
Also under Shariah punishments, one man has been hanged for killing a woman and her two children. Muslim authorities have amputated the hands of three others for stealing, respectively, a goat, a cow and three bicycles.
Despite such harsh sentences, the majority of Muslims in the predominantly Islamic north have welcomed the implementation of Shariah, saying it’s a key part of their religion and discourages crime.
Many Katsina residents were unaware Lawal’s controversial trial was taking place in their town. Some had never heard of the case at all. But those who had, believed the sentence should have been carried out if she had been found guilty.
“If she’s stoned to death, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Usman Garba, a 40-year-old civil servant, said on Wednesday. “It’s stipulated by Islam, and she’s a Muslim. It would be a good thing.”
Prosecutors argued Lawal’s child was living proof she committed a crime under Shariah, but Yawuri said the defense had “very strong grounds for appeal”.
Yawuri said under some interpretations of Shariah, babies can remain in gestation in a mother’s womb for five years, opening the possibility her ex-husband could have fathered the child.
He also argued Lawal’s case should be dropped because no lawyers were present when she first testified she had slept with another man following her divorce. Yawuri said Lawal—a poor, uneducated woman from a rural family—didn’t understand the charges against her at the time.
Lawal had identified her alleged sexual partner, Yahaya Mohammed, and said he promised to marry her. Mohammed, who would also have faced a stoning sentence, had denied any impropriety and had been acquitted for lack of evidence.
Lawal is the second Nigerian woman to be condemned to death for having sex out of wedlock under Islamic law. The first woman, Safiya Hussaini, had her sentence overturned in March on her first appeal in the city of Sokoto—the same time that Lawal was first convicted.—Sapa-AP
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