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A Baby and an Outcry

Nigerian who had child out of wedlock is sentenced to death, but people worldwide are adamantly protesting


A photograph of a mother nursing her baby travels the world via e-mail. It is an image of maternal bliss, of bonding, of life itself. But the woman is Nigerian and she is not married. Because of that, after Amina Lawal weans her daughter, she is to be buried in the ground up to her chest and then stoned to death. Her crime: having a baby out of wedlock.

The sentence by a religious court has generated international controversy and has created an unusual alliance of protesters, from feminists to human rights activists, from book club members to beauty queens.

With the Miss World beauty pageant scheduled for Nov. 30 in Nigeria, at least a half-dozen contestants say they won't participate in the pageant if it is held before the execution is stayed. Pageant organizer Julia Morley said from London on Monday that she has received personal assurances from Nigeria's foreign minister, Dubem Onyia, that the nation's constitution, which forbids such an extreme punishment, would stand supreme.

In the West African nation's "history of justice" no woman has ever been punished in that manner, he pointed out. Only one other woman has been sentenced to execution by stoning and her sentence was reversed last month on a technicality.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 18, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 11 inches; 402 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong names--A story in Tuesday's Southern California Living about a Nigerian woman sentenced to die by stoning, misidentified the chapter of the Links Inc., a black women's philanthropic organization, involved in a discussion of her situation. It is the Palos Verdes chapter. In some editions of the newspaper, Lillie Veale Wilson's name was misspelled, and a photo caption omitted part of a woman's name. She is Ann Kennedy Obi.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, is circulating an open letter to Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo protesting the sentence and including a petition signed by nearly 800,000 people from around the world.

In an address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Obasanjo spoke of the poverty, hunger and disease in his country, and of the nation's attempts to attract foreign investment, like the tourist dollars from the Miss World pageant.

But he made no mention of Lawal. At home, Obasanjo, who has the authority to commute the sentence, has said only that "Nigeria will weep" if the mother is killed.

The Amnesty petition, with Lawal's photo attached, will be delivered a week from today to the Nigerian High Commission, or embassy, in London. That picture of a mother and child persuaded Sandra Williams, an entertainment lawyer in L.A., to do something she never does--sign a petition. "When I saw the photo of her, I realized how young she is," Williams said. "She looks very vulnerable. She looks like someone in my family." Williams forwarded the e-mail to her Sisterfriends book club, a group of African American women who meet monthly. Among them, Shirley Ann Harris, a junior high school teacher, insisted of the petition, "We must get our vote in." After Annette Parker-Goode, a legal analyst, looked at "that sweet little baby," she too e-mailed her support. But she remained concerned. "She may be spared, but they're not abolishing the law."

On Sunday, members of the book club met at the Torrance home of Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, an advertising executive. They were joined by women from the Rancho Palos Verdes chapter of The Links Inc., a black women's international philanthropic organization.

Most knew that Lawal, a 31-year-old village woman, lives in a northern state governed by Sharia, a radical interpretation of Islamic law. About a year after her divorce, Lawal got pregnant. Her baby, now 9 months old, is "proof" of her adultery, according to the Muslim judge who ordered her stoned to death in January 2004.

The man Lawal identifies as the father denies paternity. Without a confession, he cannot be found guilty under Sharia law, unless four witnesses come forward, a virtually impossible legal burden.

"The thing that really struck me was the part about the male partner," said Paula Gibson, an anti-trust attorney who belongs to the book club. "He was not punished because they indicated they had insufficient evidence. Unless four people witnessed the sex act, he could deny the baby was his. How can you deny it, if you're a woman? You can't. The law completely exempted him from punishment." Gibson said part of her family comes from the Caribbean, and because of that she is sensitive to gender issues. "When my grandfather was still alive, he had substantial property. My grandfather said this brother is going to get this, this brother is going to get that, and this male cousin is going to get that. Nowhere in the conversation was anything said about women."

Lawal's situation reminded Renee Kennard, also a member of Sisterfriends and an airlines sales representative, of a difficult time in her life 26 years ago. "I put myself in her place, because I had a baby out of wedlock. I know the fear that she is feeling, not knowing what the future will be." Kennard said her mistreatment came from her church, a strict denomination that she will not name because her mother remains in the church.

"My mother said, 'If you ever get pregnant, I'm not going to have anything to do with you,' " Kennard said. "At my church, you couldn't sing in the choir. . You had to sit in the back. They called it being silenced."

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