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IN THE NEWS - Islamic Court in Nigeria Frees Woman - 2003-09-26

Broadcast: September 27, 2003

From VOA Special English, this is Steve Ember with In the News.

This week an Islamic court in northern Nigeria freed a woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for illegal sexual relations. Four of the five judges voted to cancel the sentence against Amina Lawal. They said there were problems with her trial.

The Shariah Court of Appeals in the town of Katsina announced the final judgment in the case on Thursday.

Amina Lawal is thirty-one years old. She gave birth to a girl two years after she ended her marriage. She was charged with having sex with a man other than her husband. Adultery is punishable by death under Islamic law known as Sharia. Mizz Lawal would have been buried up to her neck in sand and executed by stoning.

Sharia is observed in twelve of Nigeria’s thirty-six states. It is based on the teachings of the Koran, the Islamic holy book.

An Islamic court found Amina Lawal guilty in March of two-thousand-two. International human rights groups condemned the ruling. So did women's groups in Nigeria. President Olusegun Obasanjo called for mercy. Last week, Brazil offered Mizz Lawal asylum.

Judges rejected her first appeal in August of two-thousand-two. On Thursday, however, the Sharia appeals court supported her. The court said she did not understand the charges against her and did not have enough chance to defend herself. The court also said rules for trying such cases had not been followed.

Mizz Lawal said the man she identified as her sexual partner had promised to marry her. Yahaya Mohammed said he was innocent. He was not charged, but could also have faced death by stoning.

Mizz Lawal was the second Nigerian woman condemned to death for adultery under Islamic law. The first also had her sentence overturned on appeal.

Twelve states approved Sharia in northern Nigeria when the country returned from military to civilian rule in nineteen-ninety-nine. The law is not used in cases involving Christians. But the practice of Islamic law in those states has led to violence between Christians and Muslims. The clashes have killed more than three-thousand people.

Many countries use Shariah in family cases. But only a few, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, use it in criminal cases. Afghanistan used it under Taliban rule.

Many Muslims in northern Nigeria have welcomed Sharia. They say it is an important part of their religion and helps prevent crime. But human rights groups and other critics call the system severe and unfair. They say it is out of place in a democratic republic. Nigeria has the largest population in Africa, one-hundred-twenty million.

Some groups have urged President Obasanjo to help end the practice of Sharia. So far Mister Obasanjo, a Christian, has not taken action against Sharia courts. But he has promised that no stoning will be carried out in Nigeria.

In the News, from VOA Special English, was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.