As Stoning Case Proceeds, Nigeria Stands Trial

The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2003

KATSINA, Nigeria, Jan. 23 — At the Shariah court of appeals here this morning, the chief judge presiding over the case of sentenced to death by stoning for having slept with a man who was not her husband, refused to comment on the guilt or innocence of the defendant before him.

It is “sub juris” — still pending — the judge explained, relying on the Latin he had learned in law school.

But his opinion on the matter of fornication was unambiguous. “The best deterrent is the death sentence, for people to see what happens to a fornicator,” said Grand Khadi Aminu Ibrahim Katsina, the judge. “They watch you be stoned to death. They wouldn’t want it to happen to them. So it definitely would be a deterrent.”

Associated Press

Amina Lawal, shown in November with her daughter Wasila in Abuja, Nigeria, was convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning.’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’)” onMouseOut=”nd()”>Ms. Lawal will meet such a fate is yet to be decided. Seeking justice, she had come this morning to the grand khadi’s courtroom, the highest Islamic court in the land. But justice, as it often is in courts of a more conventional sort, was put off for another day. After less than 10 minutes of legal niceties, the five-man panel of judges adjourned the case for another two months.

For Ms. Lawal, 30 — illiterate, unemployed and rocking Wasila, the 1-year-old product of her adulterous union, in her arms — death was no more near or far.

The verdict, when it does come, holds enormous significance, not for Ms. Lawal alone but for the future of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, which is on the verge of tearing apart along Muslim-Christian lines.

Even though Nigeria is technically a secular democracy, Shariah, or Islamic law, has swept through its northern, largely Muslim states over the last three years. It has emerged as a bellwether issue in the elections approaching in April.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner responsible for holding together this country of 130 million, has had to walk a delicate political line on the matter. The case of Ms. Lawal, in particular, has drawn international reproach.

But this morning, sitting in his chambers, the grand khadi was impassive. “This case is an ordinary case,” he said. “It is as simple as drinking water.”

If the Shariah court of appeals here ultimately upholds the verdict of the lower courts, Ms. Lawal would be the first Nigerian to be executed under the Islamic code. It would be likely to inflame religious passions in this country as well as to bring the country’s guarantee of states’ rights into conflict with its constitutional ban on capital punishment.

From this courtroom, the case can proceed to a federal non-Shariah court and ultimately to the Nigerian Supreme Court. Mr. Obasanjo has already said the Nigerian Constitution would see to it that Ms. Lawal’s life is spared.

Her story goes like this. She was a divorced woman living in her father’s house in Kurami, a village roughly 90 minutes from here, when someone reported to the authorities that she had borne a child out of wedlock. She confessed, but not much of a confession was needed. A newborn girl served as proof of her crime.

The man she identified as the father of her child denied the charge. He swore on the Holy Koran, and that was that — the court judged him innocent. To prove his guilt under Koranic law would require testimonies of four witnesses to the fornication itself. No one suggested DNA tests.

Shariah governs family law in a wide range of countries, but it has been applied to criminal offenses only in a handful of states, like Saudi Arabia, Iran and — most visibly to the rest of the world — in Afghanistan when it was under Taliban rule. In Nigeria, which has 130 million people, 12 of the country’s 36 states have put Shariah into effect since 1999, though the code does not apply to Christians living in those states.

Shariah governs everything from prayers and meals to custody battles and sexual behavior.

Cynics see the Shariah wave as nothing more than a way for northern Muslim politicians to score cheap points. Proponents insist that it is a far better alternative to the common law that British rulers imposed. Shariah, they say, is fairer, swifter and God-given. The chief prosecutor of Katsina state, Solicitor General Hamza Y. Kurfi, went as far as to call it “a dividend of democracy.”

“The people asked for it,” he said. “The government is doing the bidding of the people.”

Shariah law was introduced in Katsina state a little more than a year ago. But Mr. Kurfi had looked forward to it since he graduated from law school in 1978.

“I think the system is the most liberal legal system I’ve seen in the world,” he said. He pointed to the provision that allows even someone convicted of a capital offense to remain free while the case is going through appeal.

Look at Ms. Lawal, he said. She can come and go as she pleases. She can live in her father’s house. She can go to the market. “In America, the moment you’re accused, you’re chained,” he said passionately. “I think that’s more inhuman.”

But in America, it was pointed out, a woman is not stoned to death for adultery.

To be stoned to death here on earth, he reasoned, is to be spared of eternal hellfire in the hereafter. “If you suffer punishment now, you will not suffer punishment in the hands of God,” he said.

But death by stoning does not sound like much consolation.

“That’s a lot of consolation for a believer,” he insisted. “The worst that can happen here is you die. There you continue suffering.”

Does it bother his conscience that a woman may be stoned until she dies?

The burden of proof is high, he responded, and there are avenues for appeal. “Until all the avenues are exhausted, we can’t think about stoning anybody,” he maintained.

The Shariah court here, not much older than Ms. Lawal’s baby girl, is an odd experiment, cobbling together the customs of British law and the tenets of Islamic law. The courtroom is a former state government building, newly painted sea blue.

“Cooourt,” the bailiff bellowed as the judges walked in in gray-blue caftans and white turbans, all except the grand khadi, whose head wrap was made of gold netting, reminiscent of a Brooklyn disco dance floor, circa 1981. The lawyers from both sides were dressed in black gowns and straw-colored wigs, among the oddest remnants of British colonial rule here.

Alone, Ms. Lawal sat on the edge of a bench in the far right of the courtroom. For much of the proceedings, her baby slumbered against her back, head falling to the right, mouth wide open. Under her sentence, Ms. Lawal is to be stoned to death in a public square when the child is weaned, this time next year.

As unkind as death by stoning might seem, the grand khadi said, such a punishment is necessary to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Under God’s law, he said, marriage was created for a reason: to produce children one can call one’s own.

“Islamic law prescribes that adultery and fornication are offenses that carry punishment,” he explained. “If this girl were a spinster, if she had never married, they would never sentence her to death. They would sentence her to 100 lashes of the cane.”


“Only Allah knows,” he said at first.

Then: “If she has never married, she doesn’t know whether this is sweet, nice, bitter. If this woman was married before, she knows.”

Allow such an act to go unpunished, he went on, and it will happen again and again. “Someone will walk into my house and force my wife and do it with her,” he said. “We shouldn’t allow it to spread.”

Another convicted adulterer faced execution under Shariah in nearby Sokoto state, but her case has since been dismissed by a Shariah court of appeals on technical grounds.

Ms. Lawal’s lawyer, Aliyu Musa Yawuri, plans to raise some technicalities in his appeal: the charges were not sufficiently explained to Ms. Lawal, she did not understand the consequences of a confession. Nor, he said, did the lower court judge fully understand the legal requirements for proving adultery under the Shariah penal code. His appeal will be heard on March 25. It may be a matter of hours, or months, until the five-man panel issues its decision.

So Ms. Lawal must wait. She had expected some progress today, she said back in her village at the close of the day. But she is also prepared to wait until the case makes its way up the legal ladder, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Her legal team will push on her behalf, she said, and in the end, God will provide.

“I have committed everything in the hands of God,” she said.

She had nothing to say about the pros and cons of Shariah. She did not want to talk about the confession that landed her in this mess.

What did she want for her daughter? “Even though her destiny is in the hands of God,” she said, “I would like for her to be a lawyer.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday January 26, 2003.
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