- The Shari'a Court of Appeal of Katsina State, in northern Nigeria today decided to quash Amina Lawal's sentence to death by stoning handed down by a Shari'a court at Bakori, in Katsina State on 22 March 2002. Ms Lawal had originally been found guilty of bearing a child outside marriage.
According to her defence lawyer, Hauwa Ibrahim, Ms Lawal was freed on the grounds that neither the conviction nor the confession were legally valid. Therefore no offence as such was established. Further, Ms Lawal had not been caught in the act and had not properly understood the charges against her when she first had confessed.
Ms Ibrahim, the lawyer, told the press in Katsina that the appeal court's decision had been "a victory" for law, for justice and for dignity and fundamental human rights.
Amina Lawal was found guilty by a Shari'a Court in March 2002 after bearing a child outside marriage. Under new Shari'a Penal Legislations in force in several northern Nigerian states since 1999, this was sufficient for her to be convicted of the offence of adultery as defined in the new Shari'a Penal laws of Katsina state and summoned to appear before a Shari'a tribunal to respond to this charge which now carries the mandatory punishment of death by stoning.
The request of appeal for Amina Lawal's court case went through several adjournments before this last hearing by the five-judge panel Shari'a Court of Appeal of Katsina State. The court also faced strong pressure from the federal government of Nigeria, local women's groups, human rights activists and the international society.
Nigerian women's groups for more than one year have mobilised ahead of today's ruling and have condemned the gender-biased attitude in the decisions of some Shari'a courts in Nigeria. According to the original ruling, the father of Ms Lawal's child had not committed a criminal act, only she was to face criminal charges.
While Ms Lawal's conviction today was quashed, an appeal for another court case involving a death penalty sentence against Fatima Usman and Ahmadu Ibrahim - a pair of lovers - is still pending with a Shari'a Court of Appeal in Minna, Niger State. Nigerian and international human rights and women's groups are now mobilising against a possible death verdict in Minna.
Under the Shari'a laws of Northern Nigeria, five persons have so far been sentenced to death by stoning. No such sentence has however yet been executed, mostly due to the high pressure against the Shari'a courts. Three persons, including Ms Lawal, have been acquitted, while Ms Usman and Mr Ibrahim are still awaiting rulings in Minna. One man has however been hanged for killing a woman and her two children.
The news of Ms Lawal's acquaintance has caused world-wide joy among the many activists fighting for the now famous Nigerian woman. The human rights group Amnesty today "welcomed the decision" by the Katsina Court of Appeal. "Amina Lawal's case should not have been brought to a court of law in the first instance. Nobody should ever be made to go through a similar ordeal," the group however stated.
Amnesty added that the federal government of Nigeria now should take steps to abolish the death penalty and amend all pieces of legislation which introduce the death penalty as well as cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments at all levels of the Nigerian legislation, including the Shari'a penal legislation.
- Consensual sexual relations outside marriage between adults are not recognisable criminal offences under emerging international human rights standards, the group said. The Human Rights Committee held that "it is undisputed that adult consensual sexual activity in private is covered by the concept of 'privacy'." Charging and detaining women for sexual relations "violates their right to free expression and association, freedom from discrimination, and the right to privacy," the group concluded.
Also the Paris-based group Avocats Sans Frontières (Lawyers without Borders) today welcomed the ruling. The French group had contributed with legal aid for Ms Lawal, and today repeated its appeal to Nigerian authorities to abolish the Shari'a penal legislation.
Finally, in South Africa, where Ms Lawal's case has got much attention, today's news was celebrated. South Africa's ANC party in Western Cape this night held a vigil for Ms Lawal, awaiting today's final verdict. Several South African groups, including law societies, had been involved in campaigns to save the life of Ms Lawal.
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