Nigerian Muslims support harsh Islamic law punishments, but critics say poor suffer most
One man stole a goat, another a cow, another two bicycles. Each had a hand cut off by order of Islamic courts.
Nigerian Muslims overwhelmingly support the draconian penalties meted out by Islamic law, or Shariah, which authorities started adopting in the predominantly Muslim north in 1999.
But critics say the sentences are being handed down only to the poor and uneducated in a country where corruption is commonplace, armed robberies are part of the daily newspaper diet, and top officials are regularly accused of embezzling state funds.
“The punishments are supposed to cover everyone, but we’ve seen only the poor, lower echelons of society affected,” said Saudatu Mahdi, director of a Nigerian advocacy group, the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative. “The accused are ignorant of their rights, ignorant of their avenues of redress.”
A case in point — and one that stirred international protests and offers of asylum from sympathetic foreign governments — was that of Amina Lawal, a single mother condemned to die by stoning for having sex out of wedlock.
Lawal’s conviction was overturned last week by an appeals court in northern Katsina state, largely because of a team of volunteer defense lawyers funded by the women’s rights group and supported by the French group Avocats Sans Frontieres, or Lawyers Without Borders.
Lawyers Aliyu Yawuri and Hauwa Ibrahim argued that that Lawal was not properly represented when first convicted in March 2002. No defense lawyers were present then, and only one of the three judges required to try the case was on hand.
They also argued that Lawal, who is illiterate, had not fully understood her alleged offense or the death penalty it could bring when she was initially accused.
Dalhatu Abubakar, the Islamic appeals court registrar in Katsina, said “ignorance of the law is not a defense.”
“These laws are not man-made laws. As long as you are Muslim, they are applicable to you,” Abubakar said.
Had the sentence been carried out, Lawal would have been buried up to the neck in sand and become the first woman ever to be executed by stoning under Islamic law in Nigeria.
While dozens of Shariah cases are still pending, the strictest punishments have been carried out sparingly. Surgeons, operating under the direction of Islamic courts, have amputated the hands of three men since 2000 for stealing, respectively, a goat, a cow and two bicycles. Another man was hanged for killing a woman and her two children.
Katherine Mabille of Lawyers Without Borders said her organization was supporting Shariah cases because most Nigerian lawyers were loath to represent the accused.
“Only Muslim lawyers take on these cases, and they are very few,” Mabille said. “They feel that they’ll be perceived as anti-Shariah. They are under a lot of pressure and they don’t feel safe.”
Impoverished clients scraping by on a dollar a day are incapable of paying for legal defense, which is not always provided by the courts even though it is supposed to be mandatory.
“The lawyers say, ‘We are not going to be paid and we are in danger, so why should we defend these people?”‘ Mabille said. “The result is that the poor, the illiterate — this is the kind of people that Shariah is being applied to.”
Many Nigerian Muslims don’t see it that way.
“Shariah doesn’t discriminate. It is applicable to all Muslims, rich or poor,” said Abdullahi Adamu, 47, manning a market stall on a dusty street in Kano. “In the end, it is Allah who will judge.”
Muslims say they support Islamic law because it is an integral part of their faith. They defend the harsh punishments — which include stoning, amputation and flogging — as deterrents that have brought down crime rates. The laws only apply to Muslims, though. Christians are tried in secular courts.
Tensions over the punishments have helped spark religious clashes that have left thousands dead over the last several years.
Some say Nigeria’s woes are grounded in poverty, and Shariah sentences have been affected as a result. Nigeria earns billions of dollars annually as one of the world’s leading oil exporters, but most of its 132 million people struggle to get by.
“People are living in conditions of abject poverty, and sometimes it is the needs of survival that compel a poor man to steal,” Yawuri said. “We have always argued that before Shariah could be validly implemented, the social conditions would have to be improved.”
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