Nigerian woman may escape stoning, Quebec lawyer says
Amina Lawal got a death sentence last year for having a child two years after her divorce
It was under Islamic law that Amina Lawal was sentenced to death by stoning, but it is Islamic law that could ultimately save the young Nigerian mother’s life if all goes well, a Quebec lawyer working on her behalf said yesterday.
Days after returning from Africa’s most-populous country, Pierre Brun said hopes are high the 32-year-old’s conviction for having a child out of wedlock will be overturned by a Muslim appeals court set to rule Sept 25.
“We’re confident,” said Brun, a Quebec City jurist in private practice and a member of the Quebec chapter of Lawyers Without Borders. “We hope the court will acquit Amina Lawal.”
A hearing was held a week ago yesterday before five judges of the Katsina State Sharia Court of Appeal in northern Nigeria.
Local litigators, backed by a team of international lawyers and aid groups, argued not only have Lawal’s human rights been violated by her initial trial and prescribed punishment, she ought to be acquitted on a technicality because her so-called crime occurred before religious laws were applied in the state.
The acquittal of another woman in similar circumstances fuels optimism: Safiya Hussaini had her death sentence overturned by a Muslim appeals court in the city of Sokoto.
Lawal’s defence team is navigating the channels of the very legal system that condemned her, in hopes of creating a precedent that will spare others.
A strict interpretation of the Koran applied in the mainly Muslim states of northern Nigeria metes out such draconian punishments as flogging, amputation and beheading.
“The important thing was not only to frame our arguments in Islamic law … but to push the debate further, so the the Islamic law applied there could be interpreted in the context of their own constitution and international treaties they have ratified for the protection of human rights and liberties,” Brun said.
“This was an important step for us, that the judges there, schooled in Islamic law, agreed to hear our arguments based on fundamental human rights and the constitution.”
While the judges were attentive and receptive, Brun said the defence team is treading carefully so their efforts don’t backfire.
Lawal’s case captured international attention back in 2002, when she was ordered buried up to her neck and stoned for having a baby girl more than two years after getting divorced.
The international media have been captivated by the case, while foreign and local non-
governmental organizations have rallied around her.
Even Nigeria’s Christian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has denounced her sentence as unconstitutional. But Muslims have accused him of meddling and exacerbating religious tensions.
Last November, Miss World contestants pleaded for her life before the pageant was moved out of Nigeria amid bloodshed.
Brun called all the media attention a “double-edged sword.” In a similar case, a woman’s flogging was moved up without notice after international scrutiny became intense. Some aid organizations warn petitions that don’t get the facts straight spark vigilante violence.
“We’re walking a very fine line where, if the international attention and our presence becomes too heavy, we could have the opposite effect,” Brun said. “They could go the other way, they could say, ‘We don’t have any lessons to learn here.’ That’s why we act only in support of local actors and not in their place.”
There’s a chance that, instead of being absolved, her sentence could be reduced to 100 lashes – which is why Brun said work on an appeal to a higher court is already under way.
“We will contest any decision that is not favourable,” he said.
Illiterate, bewildered by her conviction and ostracized by the other villagers in her traditional, mud-hut hometown, Lawal is not likely in any immediate peril, because there are two higher courts she can still appeal to.
“The poor woman’s fate is in the hands of (her lawyer) and, quite simply, in the hands of God,” he said.