Safiya Hussaini acquitted by Nigerian court

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afrol News, 25 March - An Islamic Court in the northern Nigerian state of Sokoto today acquitted Safiya Hussaini of adultery. Safiya (35), mother of four, had appealed her death by stoning sentence and won global support, placing the northern Nigerian Shari' a law system under substantial national and international pressure. 

The appeal court in Sokoto found that the death sentence, originally placed by an Islamic court on October 2001, had been baseless. Judge Mohammed Tambari-Uthman ruled that the adultery provisions of Sokoto's Shari' a code could not be used against Safiya, as the questioned act must have happened before the introduction of the code in Sokoto State. He therefore dismissed her case.

Pregnancy outside marriage theoretically is enough proof for adultery according to the harsh practice of Shari' a in 12 of northern Nigeria's states. An earlier appeal, led by the same lawyer Safiya has used, established that there were loopholes in this strict law application. This for example included cases were the father was, or could have been, a divorced ex-husband; also a possibility presented in Safiya's case.

Human rights groups today celebrated the decision. Amnesty International and the Nigerian group BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights issued a joint statement welcoming the courts decision. They however remained "deeply concerned" about the implementation of the Shari' a-based penal code, which provided "cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments" and discrimination on grounds of gender and religion. The current practice and many regulations in the new Shari' a penal Codes and Shari' a Codes of Criminal procedure were violating "many international human rights instruments ratified by Nigeria," the groups hold.

While Amensty, BAOBAB, other groups and the millions worldwide following Safiya's case today have been hailing the courts decision, another adultery death sentence today was proclaimed in northern Nigeria, enhancing Amnesty's concerns. According to the French news agency AFP, a Shari' a court at Bakori in Katsina State today sentenced Amina Lawal to death by stoning after confessing to having had a child while divorced.  

As usual, there are made no charges against the man accused by the charged woman of fathering the child. The man named by Amina Lawal simply denied ever having had sex with her, and thus was let to go. According to the Shari' a code, four eyewitnesses are necessary to convict a man of adultery.

The controversy over Shari' a practice in northern Nigeria therefore does not stop with the dropping of charges against Safiya Hussaini. Amina Lawal's case - she has 30 days to appeal - will be followed equally by human rights groups and the international press, keeping pressure high on the Nigerian government.

Further, the federal government already has made it clear it is to move against the practice altogether. Although the federal government has limited powers against the businesses of the states, it has started taking action.

Last month, however, the federal government found a way to address controversial the use of Shari' a law. It ratified several international human rights treaties, thus moving the responsibility up to a higher level. Last week, backed by international law, Minister of Justice Agabi therefore could make a first firm stand against the practice of Shari' a.

Minister Agabi wrote a letter to the 12 northern states practicing Shari' a law stating that the discrimination practiced by only sentencing Muslims by the Shari' a code was unconstitutional. Muslims should not be "subjected to more severe punishments than other Nigerians," Agabi wrote. Muslims had the same constitutional rights as others, he added.

State governments in northern Nigeria so far however seem little impressed by federal Minister Agabi's threats. Governor Ahmed Sani of the northern state of Zamfara already has made statement to the BBC saying these Shari' a punishments were legal under the constitution and that his administration had no plans to change its justice system. 

The actions against northern states are a delicate balance between federal human rights and religious polarisation in Nigeria. Utterly divided between a predominantly Christian south and a predominantly Muslim north, religious riots have caused many deaths over the last years, also creating fears that actions going too far by the federal government, dominated by Christians, may spark a civil war or a split of the nation.

Sources: Based on Nigerian press reports, Amnesty, AFP and afrol archives

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