Five million people signed a petition to save this Nigerian woman from being stoned to death next month. But, say experts, the protest is mistaken and may even harm her cause. Libby Brooks investigates
The Guardian (England), May 8, 2003
Over the past week, the Rev Louise Franklin, a United Reformed church minister from Ilford in Essex, has been receiving an unusual number of international calls on her mobile phone. “It’s beginning to really hack me off,” she confesses. “I’ve had people calling from all over the world. All I did was forward an email that was sent to me by another minister.”
The email in question, headlined “Amina Lawal set to be stoned on 3rd June”, was an urgent appeal to sign an online petition, apparently organised by Amnesty International’s Spanish division, highlighting an alarming development in the case of a young Nigerian woman whose case has appalled people around the world. Franklin forwarded the request to friends and colleagues, her email system automatically appending her name and phone number to the file. Recipients assumed that Franklin was its originator, as the appeal spread virally across the country, and the globe.
“I’d been following the case,” says Franklin “and when I got the email [saying that Lawal would be stoned to death within a month] it seemed to me that any sane and concerned person would pass it on to as many people as possible. I don’t normally forward things, but because this had the name Amnesty International attached to it I assumed that it was fine.” In fact, it emerged this week, the news that Lawal is due to be executed imminently is untrue, and the site on which the claim surfaced is bogus. What is more, rather than helping Lawal’s case, campaigners argue, the email petition may have imperilled her further. So who was really behind the email? And more importantly, what is really happening in the case of Amina Lawal?
Lawal, a young Muslim woman from Katsina State in northern Nigeria, became an international cause celebre last year when she was condemned to death by stoning after being convicted of adultery. She was sentenced on March 22, 2002 under sharia penal legislation, now in place in several northern Nigerian states, after confessing to having had a child while divorced. The man named as the father of her baby girl reportedly denied having sex with her, and the charges against him were discontinued. Later that year, her sentence was suspended until January 2004 to allow Lawal to care for her baby until she was weaned.
The case pierced the global conscience. A petition started by a local Amnesty group in south London protesting against Lawal’s sentence, which was presented to the Nigerian authorities last September, attracted nearly 1.3 million signatories from over 100 countries. (The Spanish website – which displays an Amnesty logo but is not approved by the organisation – has, to date, collected over five million names.) Last December, a number of Miss World contestants pulled out of the competition, scheduled to take place in Nigeria, as a gesture of solidarity with Lawal. The campaign was following hard upon the case of Safiya Hussaini, also an unmarried mother condemned to the same death, who was freed only days after Lawal’s conviction.
Since the decision to suspend Lawal’s punishment, a team of lawyers has continued to work on the many avenues of appeal which are still open to her. The last appeal was, on March 25 this year, adjourned after an insufficient number of tribunal members were available. It was subsequently postponed until after the elections. And this is where the confusion of the Spanish email arises: Lawal is not due to be stoned on June 3, as the current widely circulated email suggests. This is simply the rescheduled date for her next hearing before the state sharia court of appeal.
“The judicial process is a long way from immediate stoning to death,” says Ayesha Imam, a member of the women’s human rights group Baobab, the local NGO which took up Lawal’s case after her initial sentence. Despite the confusion of dates, however, shouldn’t people be encouraged to support Lawal’s case by signing the petition? She argues not. As the inaccurate email gathered pace, Baobab was forced to post a counter-appeal online, asking people not to support the campaign for the present. Thanking the world “for its support and concern”, the open letter continued: “Many of these [international protest letter campaigns] are inaccurate and ineffective and may even be damaging to her case and those of others in similar situations.”
Imam points out that not one appeal taken up by her organisation has been lost – and that no sentence of death by stoning for adultery has been carried out in recent times. She adds that the huge international campaign for Lawal may actually put her at greater risk. “If there is an immediate physical danger to Ms Lawal and others, it’s from vigilante and political overreaction to international attempts at pressure,” she adds. “This happened already in the case of an unmarried teenager convicted of extramarital sex and sentenced to flogging a few years ago. Her punishment was illegally brought forward, deliberately to defy international pressure. The state governor boasted of his resistance to ‘these letters from infidels’, even sniggering over how many letters he had received.”
The UK branch of Amnesty International believes that the Spanish site was organised by a well-meaning individual who then mis-translated the information into English. Unfortunately, many who received it assumed it was an official Amnesty missive. The subsequent reawakening of interest in the case has been less than welcome, says Lesley Warner, head of media for Amnesty UK.
“The UK-led email campaign last year was very successful, and we are not saying that these things are never a good idea, but at the moment our priority is working behind the scenes with NGOs in Nigeria to ensure that the appeal has a positive outcome, as we have been doing on this and many other cases. Because of the political situation there, we believe that we’re more likely to be successful if there is less media coverage.”
If the appeal process fails, says Warner, that will be the time to crank up the profile of the case once again. “And even if the appeal is successful, Amnesty will continue to call on the federal government to abolish the death penalty and amend all legislation introducing cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments. But in the meantime, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we are talking about an individual’s life.”
Meanwhile, what of Lawal? She has seldom spoken publicly about her circumstances, other than to comment at her original trial: “I’ve left everything to God. I do not feel anything right now. I know God’s judgment is the best and will prevail.” Enrique Restoy, a Nigerian specialist for Amnesty, visited Lawal earlier this spring, and found her in reasonably good spirits. “She had some medical problems last year, but has recovered well and is feeling much better. She is not being detained [she is living freely in her home village], and is supported by three brilliant lawyers. She’s obviously not a happy person, and this has been hanging over her for a long time, but her family have stood by her and she is treated well in her village.”
He, too, is concerned about the impact of the email on Lawal’s case. “This mistaken attribution to Amnesty is very unfortunate because it puts our partner organisations in Nigeria in an awkward position. The last thing we want is to endanger the people working in the field. It also makes people suspect that we aren’t always scrupulous with our information.” He also notes that unofficial appeals often conflate issues of legality and religion, inevitably tarnishing Amnesty’s more measured approach. “Nigeria is a secular country and we are focusing the campaign on the federal government. Our campaign is to amend the sharia penal legislation itself because we believe that it contravenes international human rights standards in many of its provisions. But it is too easy for these emails to assimilate this legislation with religion, and then others assume that Amnesty is against Islam.”
Ayesha Imam echoes this concern. “When protest letters accept stereotypes that present Islam as incompatible with human rights, it not only perpetuates racism but also confirms the claims of rightwing extremists in our context. The invocation of Islam has been used both to vindicate and to violate women’s rights in different times and places – the same can be said of many other religions. The point for us is to question who is invoking Islam for what purposes, and to support internal dissent with the community, rather than engaging in wholesale condemnation of people’s beliefs and cultures.”
There is of course a place for international pressure and campaigns, concludes Sindi Medar-Gould, Baobab’s executive director, in her open letter. “But using international protest appeals as the automatic response reduces its usefulness as an advocacy tool.” Such a campaign was not currently an appropriate response to Lawal’s case, she argues. “This is not one individual case. Not all the cases of conviction have made the international headlines or even the national media. They cannot all become international causes celebres and subjects for letter-writing protests.” Very few people know the name of Hafsatu Abukar, for example, the first woman to be acquitted after appealing a stoning-to-death sentence, nor any of the other eight women and 10 youths whose current cases Baobab is dealing with.
What Baobab and organisations like it do need, according to Medar-Gould, is funding, information exchange between similarly placed groups, and the practical offer of safe havens both inside and outside Nigeria. And for now, she calls upon their international supporters to exercise caution with their care, and consider the consequences before hitting the forward button.