Woman who was raped faces death by stoning

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Fears are growing for a Nigerian woman condemned to be stoned to death for adultery after a murderer was hanged in the first execution under sharia law.

Sani Yakubu Rodi was hanged in prison in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna on Thursday. He had originally been sentenced to execution by stabbing – the method he used to kill a woman and her two children in June last year. But sharia authorities changed their mind to avoid triggering widespread outrage in Nigeria, where the implementationof strict Islamic law in some Muslim-dominated northern states over the past two years has provoked riots.

The case of Sufiyatu Huseini, 35, now rests with an appeal court. She was condemned to death by stoning by a sharia court in the northern town of Sokoto in June. The sentence would have been fulfilled as soon as she had weaned her 11-month-old daughter, Adama, but she appealed and has secured a stay of execution.

She divorced because her husband could not support her and her two children. Then a neighbour, Yakubu Abubakar, tried to woo her. "He said he loved me," she said. "He used fetishes and magic on several occasions. I did not know what I was doing. When I was in the bush one day he ambushed me and forced me. That happened three times. I found myself pregnant."

Ms Huseini said that Mr Abubakar had promised to acknowledge the child and take care of her until it was born, even though he was already married. Her father asked Mr Abubakar to marry her, but his elder brother would not allow it, so then Mr Abubakar reneged on what he had said.

In previous times the village would have acted as the child support agency, making the father support the child and the mother but not insisting that they marry. Now death hangs over the case. Ms Huseini and her father acknowledge that the law should be upheld. But she says that in her case the law was unfairly applied because she was raped.

She lives in Tungar Tudu, a village of red mud and straw homes eight miles down a sandy track that winds across a parched land. She sits on the earth floor of a tiny hut next to her father, who is blind and deaf. Her wrinkled face and stained, broken teeth make her look more like 70 than 35. She feeds Adamu from a shrivelled breast. Flies flit around her and crawl across the child's eyes and lips.

"One day the police came and asked me questions," she said. "I was taken to the sharia court. Yakubu said he had never met me. He denied everything and said he had never done anything to me. I had witnesses who heard him admit [he was the father]. I don't know why they were not listened to.

"Yakubu was exonerated. I felt like dying that day because of the injustice. Then the judge said I was guilty of adultery. When he passed sentence I broke down in tears. I never thought there would be such a penalty."

For a century sharia has been the customary law in the majority Muslim areas of the north but the harsher aspects of Islamic punishment were not carried out. In 1999 democracy was restored to Nigeria after 17 years of military rule, and elections were held. Many would-be politicians had amassed fortunes under military rule, which they used to help get themselves elected. Once elected they wanted to establish a popular power-base, and calling for the return of the sharia appeared to be a way of raising their chances of re-election.

The traditional Islamic rulers and holy men of the north did not support it but, as Muslims, they – and all modern-minded Muslims – could not oppose the sharia for fear of being thought anti-Islamic. An outbreak of armed robberies after the end of military rule also made harsh Islamic punishments a popular cause.

Already a man in Sokoto state has had his right hand amputated for stealing a goat, and there have been several other amputations in other states. The attorney general of Sokoto rewarded this first instance of the punishment by giving the judge a new Mercedes.

Ms Huseini is at a legal disadvantage because northern Nigeria has adopted the strictest of the four interpretations of Koranic law. The other three say the act of adultery must be observed by four (male) witnesses, or a conviction can be secured by a free confession. The Maliki interpretation, however, says that pregnancy outside marriage is enough to secure conviction.

Mansur Ibrahim Sa'id, dean of the law faculty at the Fodio University at Sokoto and one of the drafters of the new state sharia, says that adultery is one of the most serious crimes in Islam. "A person who does it will be abhorred by God and society," he says. "It destroys a person's reputation and the children will be bastards." He says that Ms Huseini became pregnant outside marriage and now has to prove her innocence. He dismisses the defence that she was raped or put into a trance by magic, saying she should have raised this at the time she says it happened.

Ms Huseini's life hangs by a thread, and holding it is her pleasant but confused young lawyer, Abdulkadir Imam Ibrahim, who began a conversation saying he believed in a literal interpretation of the sharia, including stoning, but later said adultery should be made a lesser crime.

He said many people in Sokoto had warned him against defending Ms Huseini and "wanted to see someone stoned". He hopes to base the appeal on irregularities in the first hearing.

Ultimately Ms Huseini could appeal to a panel of sharia judges in the supreme court.

The outcome may be crucial to the future of Nigeria. Some 5,000 people have been killed in Nigeria since democracy was restored, most of them in intercommunal clashes fuelled by the sharia issue, but the stoning of this one woman could have a far greater impact. It could mean the end of western support for President Olusegun Obasanjo – it could also tear the country apart.