Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-NIGERIA: Amina Lawal Escapes Death by Stoning

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Sep 25 2003 (IPS) - Amina Lawal, condemned to death by stoning in Katsina State, northern Nigeria, for adultery last year, has been set free.

The Shariah Appeal Court sitting in Funtua, a town some two hours drive from the capital Abuja, Thursday declared that Shariah had not been introduced in Katsina State at the time Lawal committed the offence.

The ruling was applauded by rights activists. ”That is good news. Even if she had been convicted, there are still options left for her to appeal to. We are happy that it is the court process that found her not guilty rather than the (Katsina state) governor pardoning her after she had been sentenced. It is good news,” said Okeke Anyia of GADA, a Lagos-based rights group.

An official of the Women Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) based in Abuja, which provided legal support for Lawal has also expressed joy at the outcome of the ruling.

”The Secretary General of our organisation called me some minutes ago from Funtua that we have won the case. I am very happy for Lawal and for our organisation. All our efforts were not in vain,” said the elated WRAPA official.

Toro Oladapo, National Cordinator of Women In Nigeria (WIN), described the judgement as commendable. ”I am happy no precedent was set about stoning a woman to death for adultery. I commend all those who supported us locally and internationally in the fight against Lawal’s death,” she told IPS in a telephone interview Thursday.

Oladapo said Lawal’s death by stoning would have set a bad precedent in Nigeria. ”We thank God, she has been set free. I am happy we did not have to go begging the government to pardon her,” she said.

A coalition of 30 rights organisations in Nigeria Wednesday made a last minute appeal to save Lawal’s life. In a statement, signed by the programme officer of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre, Titi Salaam, the coalition condemned what it described as the gender bias in the judgements and attitudes of the Shariah courts in Nigeria.

”Only women alleged for committing adultery under the Shariah are being prosecuted and sentenced. Men are always left off the hook for want of evidence,” the statement added.

A group of South African women, led by the women wing of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), demonstrated outside the Nigerian Embassy in Pretoria last week in attempts to force government to pardon Lawal.

Catholic Bishop of Lagos, Olubunmi Okogie also has reminded those campaigning for the stoning to death sentence that the first and most fundamental right of human beings is the right to life.

While government had right to punish offenders, promote the security of citizens, preserve life and ensure good governance, it should not venture into blood-letting in any form since God and the Nigerian constitution forbid it, Okogie said.

Lawal, 31, was convicted in Mar. 2002 by a lower Shariah court in Funtua for adultery and sentenced to death by stoning for giving birth to a baby girl more than nine months of being divorced. She appealed against the ruling to the Upper Sharia court hoping to get her sentence quashed.

However, on Aug. 10 last year, the court confirmed the death sentence, but Lawal would have to wean her eight-month baby before she is stoned to death, either this year or in 2004.

Lawal’s counsel, Aliyu Musa Yawuri argued, at the second appeal hearing late August, that under Islamic law, there is a provision that a woman could carry a ”sleeping embryo for a period of five years commencing from the date of divorce. Lawal was divorced for about 10 months when she delivered her child, so the court ought to have applied the law in her favour”.

Yawuri also told the court that Lawal had withdrawn a confession of guilt made in Mar. last year.

But the prosecution argued that the confessional statement could only be withdrawn if an alternative explanation for her pregnancy was submitted, which he said, was not done. The five judges fixed Sep. 25 for judgement.

Hundreds of thousands of signatures were compiled by rights activists both in Nigeria and overseas, including the United States, in efforts to save Lawal’s life.

In fact, rights groups were worried when the Upper Shariah court upheld the death sentence. ”We are very worried that in this particularly case, the judgment is not, for instance, compatible with the Nigerian constitution and Nigeria’s obligation to international instrument and African Charter on Human Rights. We are hoping that the woman will be given the right to enjoy her right of appeal,” said Steven Callow, spokesperson for Amnesty International in August.

Lawal’s counsel and rights activist, Hawa Ibrahim said Nigeria is a signatory to international instruments and that such death sentences should not be carried out. She described the judgment by the lower shariah court as cruel, inhuman and a degrading treatment.

But the government had already assured that nobody would be put to death through stoning as it weighed the negative impact internationally, of a conviction and killing of Lawal.

Dubem Onyia, former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, who made government’s position known, said: ”The ruling is not a travesty of justice as there are higher courts yet to examine the case. The Nigerian government has never undermined the rights of its citizens and will not look away when these rights are threatened. It is worthy to mention that in the history of justice in Nigeria no woman has ever been punished in such dastardly manner as pre-empted by this case and this will not be an exception”.

”The Nigerian constitution stands supreme in this case. In the working of our constitution, when the state laws impinge on federal laws, the federal laws usually supersede,” Onyia added.

Lawal is the second woman to be set free by a higher Shariah Court after being condemned to death by stoning for adultery by a lower court.

Safiya Hussein, another woman condemned by a lower Shariah court for having a baby out of wedlock was set free later by a higher court following international pressure and outcry by rights groups and intervention by the presidency.

Nigeria narrowly escaped being turned into a pariah state for the second time after the era of the infamous late General Sani Abacha (1993-1997) if the Shariah Appeal Court did not overturn the ruling of death sentence on Hussein and set her free.

Hussein is today a citizen of Rome, Italy, having been granted a right of abode there.

Shariah was introduced in Zamfara State more as a political platform by the campaigning Governor Yerima Sani in 1999 than for purely religious purpose. Eleven other northern states have since joined the crusade, leading to hundreds of people being subjected to cruel and humiliating sentences such as limb amputations for stealing and public floggings for consuming alcohol.

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