KATSINA, Nigeria (Reuters) – A Nigerian court on Thursday spared a woman from being stoned to death by overturning an Islamic court’s conviction for adultery, easing pressure on the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Western governments led by the European Union had urged Obasanjo to intervene in the case involving Amina Lawal who was convicted in March 2002 after having a baby outside wedlock.
The sharia judgment had divided Muslim opinion and deepened a deadly sectarian rift in the country of over 120 million, split almost evenly between Muslims and Christians.
“It is the view of this court that the judgment of the Upper Sharia Court, Funtua, was very wrong and the appeal of Amina Lawal is hereby discharged and acquitted,” judge Ibrahim Maiangwa said in the Muslim court in the northern Nigerian town of Katsina.
He said the original conviction of the lower court “is not consonant with the laws of Katsina state because the police did not arrest the suspects when they committed the offence.”
Lawal, holding her baby, smiled as the ruling was read out to the courtroom packed with journalists, and human rights lawyers and activists who had spearheaded the appeal of the 31-year-old illiterate woman.
“It is a victory for womanhood and humanity over certain man-made defects and mistakes,” said Hauwa Ibrahim, a woman activist and a member of Lawal’s defense team.
Women’s groups had condemned what they said was the discriminatory nature of sharia rulings in cases of adultery. The male partner usually escapes injunction.
FEARS OF BACKLASH
Even before the five sharia judges — one voicing a dissenting opinion — concluded their reading, Lawal was escorted from the courtroom via a back door and whisked away in a police vehicle for her own safety.
Police in Katsina, in the heartland of the conservative Islamic north of Nigeria, braced for a backlash from Muslim fundamentalists demanding Lawal’s blood.
About 30 armed police stood guard at the small court in the conservative state as Lawal, wearing a traditional yellow dress and her head covered in a matching Muslim headscarf, arrived.
The prosecution grudgingly accepted its loss.
“For now that is the position of the judgment,” Isa Bature, the chief prosecutor for Katsina state said. “Her appeal has succeeded. I have up to three months to study the judgment and appeal if I want to, that is if it is necessary.”
Campaign groups vowed to mount protests if the Katsina appeals court upheld the judgment after Lawal lost an earlier appeal.
But Obasanjo had to be mindful of an influential Muslim lobby that has historically wielded significant political power in a country split almost evenly between Christians and Muslims.
He is also constrained by Nigeria’s U.S.-style federal constitution, whose separation of powers between the central and state governments allowed regional authorities to adopt a parallel criminal code in the first place.