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Woman Wins Stoning-Death Appeal

Nigerian judges rule for the 32-year-old mother found guilty of having sex out of wedlock.

September 26, 2003|From Associated Press

KATSINA, Nigeria — An Islamic court overturned the conviction of an illiterate mother who had been sentenced to be stoned to death for having sex out of wedlock, easing pressure on the Nigerian government in a case that had drawn sharp criticism from around the globe.

"It's a big relief for all of us," said Hauwa Ibrahim, a defense lawyer for Amina Lawal. "Amina can have her life back, and we are grateful to the court."

Wrapped in a light orange veil and sitting quietly at the front of a small, sweltering courtroom, the 32-year-old woman at the center of the controversy appeared emotionless throughout the hearing, staring down at the floor, cradling her nearly 2-year-old daughter.

A panel of five judges wearing white turbans and black robes ruled 4 to 1 in Lawal's favor, citing procedural errors and arguing that she was not given ample opportunity to defend herself.

Lawal did not speak after the verdict. Had the sentence been carried out, she would have become the first woman stoned to death in Nigeria since 12 northern states began adopting strict Islamic law, or Sharia, in 1999.

Reading the hourlong ruling in the local Hausa language, Judge Ibrahim Mai-Unguwa argued that only one judge was present during Lawal's initial conviction in March 2002, instead of the three required under local Islamic law.

Mai-Unguwa also said the policeman who first arrested Lawal in 2002 should have been flogged because he did so in violation of Islamic law, which requires four witnesses to the crime. Lawal was not "caught in the act," Mai-Unguwa said.

Lead prosecutor Nurulhuda Mohammad Darma said he was satisfied with the ruling. The state has 30 days to appeal, but Darma said that was unlikely.

In the sole dissenting opinion, Judge Sule Sada said the conviction should stand because Lawal had confessed. The defense argued that the confession was invalid because no lawyers were present when it was made.

Filling the court's first row of wooden benches were defense and prosecution lawyers in black robes and white wigs -- leftover attire from British colonial rule. Much of the country still relies on a version of the British legal code.

The case had drawn sharp criticism from international rights groups. President Olusegun Obasanjo's government and world leaders called for Lawal to be exonerated, and Brazil offered her asylum.

London-based Amnesty International called stoning, flogging and amputation "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" in a statement issued Thursday. The rights groups urged the Nigerian government to ban them.

The introduction of strict Islamic law in the dozen northern states heightened ethnic and religious tensions across the country, triggering violent clashes between Christians and Muslims that left thousands dead.

Most Nigerian Muslims, however, welcomed the implementation of Sharia, and many in Katsina denounced Thursday's verdict.

"There was no justice. The Koran was ignored," said Masaud Kabir, a 24-year-old student.

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