Stoning Sentences Surge in Nigeria

AP, Sep. 14, 2002

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) – When her time to die comes, convicted adulteress Amina Lawal will be buried up to her neck in sand. When only her head remains exposed, those watching will be invited to throw stones until the 30-year-old single mother is dead.

“As they throw, they will be calling ‘God is great,” court official Ibrahim Abdullahi says, outlining procedure for the first in a sudden string of executions by stoning in Nigeria’s Islamic northern states.

Lawal and others of a growing number of men and women on Nigeria’s Shariah death row have emerged as pawns in a political battle for power in Nigeria — one that high-ranking civil and religious figures feel has gotten out of control.

The rush in Nigeria’s north to impose the harshest possible sentences under Islamic law – newly adopted by a dozen states – has laid bare the split between Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.

The death sentences have become an act of defiance by northern leaders against President Olusegun Obasanjo, whom they accuse of neglect, and against the south as a whole, where Nigeria’s economic power lies.

Southerners accuse the rulers of the mainly Muslim north of manipulating Islam to divide voters along religious lines – and to distract the people from their state governments’ poor performance since military rule ended in Nigeria three years ago.

On Aug. 22, a Shariah appeal court upheld Lawal’s death by stoning sentence for having sex outside of marriage. She gave birth more than nine months after divorcing. The father was dismissed for lack of evidence.

The court postponed her execution to 2004 so she can wean her daughter. But with each day Wasila grows older, Lawal’s life grows shorter.

Clutching Wasila, Lawal broke down in tears as a judge announced to a cheering courtroom that the death sentence stood. Outside the court, she clung to her lawyer – terrified under the misapprehension that the sentence was to be carried out on the spot.

“She knew if she stayed close to me they wouldn’t stone her,” her lawyer, Hauwa Ibrahim, explained.

Lawal remains in hiding, out of her lawyers’ fear that someone might try to execute the judgment before her next appeal is considered Sept. 25.

Abdullahi said if Lawal is stoned, authorities will make sure it is a spectacle. “They will find a place that is open. So people can come and see it done. So others can see what she has done,” he said.

In the past month, four people in northern Nigeria have filed appeals against stoning death sentences: Lawal, a man convicted of raping a 9-year-old girl and a couple sentenced for adultery. But no one has been stoned to death yet in Nigeria.

Lawal’s case provoked an international outcry. Government and human rights groups around the world have urged Obasanjo’s government to intercede. The president has said he doesn’t believe the sentence will be carried out – but will weep for Lawal if it is.

Attorney General Kanu Agabi says government lawyers will assist with Lawal’s appeal, but less than two weeks before her next court date, her lawyers say they have not been contacted by his ministry. Obasanjo’s government has made no open move to block the sentence.

The European Parliament’s women’s rights committee has called for a boycott of the Miss World ( news – web sites) pageant set for Nov. 30 in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. France and Belgium have already said they are withdrawing their pageant contestants.

But northern state governments say international protests will not make them overturn the death sentences – because they are only accountable to God.

“The Muslim has the Quran as his first constitution,” said Usman Zakari Dutse, the government spokesman for Jigawa state, where the child rapist has been sentenced to death by stoning. “We don’t care what international organizations say.”

Worldwide, however, few Islamic countries still practice stoning – even if it remains on the books. Two people were stoned to death in Iran last year. A man was stoned for raping and killing his daughter in 2000 in Yemen. In Afghanistan ( news – web sites), under the Taliban, adulterous couples were often killed together.

Massoud Shadjareh, head of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, is urging Muslim intellectuals to speak out against the stoning sentences to prevent what he calls an inhumane brand of Islamic law from taking root in Nigeria.

“Shariah has been translated to be harsh, extreme treatment – it isn’t,” he said.

Amputations and stonings are supposed to be a last resort for Islamic societies that have eradicated poverty and corruption, Shadjareh argued – citing two conditions that are far from being met in Nigeria, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

Even Shariah officials in Lawal’s state have expressed doubts about whether the state is executing Islamic law correctly.

“Under normal circumstances they are not supposed to do that. Adultery is not an offense against the state,” said Dalhat S. Abubakar, chief registrar for the Katsina Shariah Court of Appeal.

However, Abdullahi, the court’s spokesman, said the state has no intention of abandoning its case against the single mother.

Many see the Shariah courts’ activism as part of attempts to discredit Obasanjo, and to secure Muslim voters’ loyalty ahead of next year’s general elections.

And many in Nigeria’s predominantly Christian south blame Obasanjo for not telling Shariah courts three years ago that amputations and stonings were illegal under the federal constitution.

“Obasanjo thought it would just fizzle out,” said Innocent Chukwuma, director of the Lagos-based Center for Law Enforcement Education. “He is in a difficult position now where intervening will look like he’s clamping down on the north.”

Even one top northern official who publicly embraces Shariah, privately says most Northern government officials are against it but had to adopt Shariah for their own political survival.

“Shariah was being kept sacred. It was like a nuclear bomb,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Once the bomb went off, everyone was pressured to bring in Shariah.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 18, 2002.
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