Nigerian court allows adultery appeal

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A woman won a temporary reprieve from death by stoning for adultery under Islamic sharia law. Safiya Hussaini, 35, who was sentenced in a Nigerian court last October, claimed her baby Adama was fathered by her former husband, not the married man who, she says, raped her. If that can be proved, she could be acquitted, since having a husband's child after divorce is not an offence under sharia law.

During a brief appearance, her lawyers also said the court had failed to determine whether Ms Hussaini had been legally married – a prerequisite for adultery – and that her child was conceived before sharia law was imposed in her home state, Sokoto. Judges postponed the case until 18 March to give prosecutors time to investigate.

But human rights activists worldwide are outraged. Yesterday, 77 European MEPs petitioned the Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, to stop the execution. In a letter on behalf of the group, Britain's John Corrie thanked the President for intervening to prevent Ms Hussaini from being stoned to death last Saturday, but called the punishment "inhuman, barbaric and cruel".

If she becomes the first Nigerian executed for adultery, the case could be as damaging to democratic Nigeria as the hanging of the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was to the country's former dictators. The imposition of fundamentalist Islamic law – applied in several predominantly Muslim northern states since democracy in 1999 – has been hotly opposed by many Nigerians and led to Muslim-Christian clashes that have claimed thousands of lives.

Although Nigeria has inflicted harsh sharia punishments, including amputations of hands and feet for theft, and hanging a man for the murder of a woman and her two children, nobody has yet been stoned to death. In Sokoto, where adultery means a mandatory death sentence, women can be convicted if they are divorced, or if they conceive outside marriage. For a man to be convicted, he must confess or there must be witnesses to the act. Ms Hussaini's alleged rapist was acquitted. She will live with her family until she wins the appeal or takes the case further or is buried up to her waist in sand and killed.