Muslim woman spared death by stoning in Nigeria

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The Independent Online

A Muslim woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death in Nigeria for adultery has been spared by an appeal court after an international outcry.

The case of Safiya Hussaini, who has five children, sparked outrage from human rights groups and women's organisations worldwide, and inflamed religious tensions.

But as the verdict was overturned yesterday, it was revealed that a second woman has been sentenced to death by stoning for a similar crime. An Islamic sharia court at Bakori in the northern state of Katsina sentenced Amina Lawal to death after she confessed to having a child while divorced.

In October, Ms Hussaini, 35, became the first Nigerian woman to be sentenced to death by stoning while buried up to her neck in sand, after a sharia court convicted her of having a child by a married neighbour.

She had a daughter after a divorce and accused her neighbour, Yakubu Abubakar, of raping her. She asked the court to force him to pay for the girl's naming ceremony. The lower court dismissed charges against him, citing a lack of evidence because she was the only witness.

Yesterday, an appeal court in Sokoto, the capital of the Muslim north, said the law did not exist at the time the alleged adultery occurred. The panel of judges said her original confession was inadmissible because the prosecutors had not informed her adequately of the seriousness of adultery under sharia law.

The verdict, delivered in Arabic, was translated by well-wishers to a smiling Hussaini, a Hausa-speaker, who replied, "Thank you, thank you," while cradling her one-year-old daughter – the sole evidence against her at the initial trial – in her arms.

Meanwhile, reports of Ms Lawal being sentenced to death for similar crimes on Friday were reaching the capital, Abuja. An official said: "The sentence was based on her [Ms Lawal's] own confession and the evidence of the baby she had. The man she said lured her into having sex denied it. She has been given 30 days to challenge the sentence."

The man accused by Ms Lawal was acquitted because she could not produce four witnesses as demanded by sharia. But the judge ordered the death sentence be delayed for eight months to allow her to breastfeed her baby.

In the past two years, Nigeria's 12 Muslim-majority northern states have introduced stoning, amputation and flogging as punishments for crimes such as adultery, theft and drinking alcohol.

President Olusegun Obasanjo at first supported the adoption of sharia law despite his evident distaste for it, receiving support from northern Muslims at the last election, although he is a southern Christian. Last week, in fear of becoming isolated by the international community, Nigeria's Justice Minister, Godwin Agabi, wrote to the 12 northern states saying punishments such as stoning and amputation were "unconstitutional". He said Muslims should not be subjected to more severe punishments than other Nigerians and added he was receiving hundreds of letters every day, protesting against the punishments. Several northern state governments, including Sokoto, replied they would continue to uphold sharia law.

General Obasanjo made clear he wanted Ms Hussaini to be spared, and his government provided lawyers to represent her yesterday, after receiving a barrage of petitions from groups such as Amnesty International and the European Union.

The imposition of sharia punishments is embarrassing for Nigeria as it comes at a time when the country is hosting a meeting of African leaders, under the New Partnership for Africa's Development, and as the West is pressurising the government to denounce the Zimbabwean presidential elections as undemocratic. Both South Africa and Nigeria have held back from condemnnation.

The adoption of sharia has inflamed domestic rifts, polarising the volatile Christian, animist and Muslim country of more than 110 million people and fuelling sectarian violence.

Amnesty International and the Nigerian human rights organisation, Baobab for Women's Human Rights, welcomed the acquittal of Ms Hussaini but urged the government to guarantee the right of appeal up to federal level for all those condemned under sharia law.