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DISPATCH: Some Justice, But Not Enough
Posted on March 27, 2002 by Anita

Last month I wrote about the plight of Safiya Husseini Tungar-Tudu, the Nigerian woman who was sentenced by an Islamic court to death by stoning for alleged adultery. After you and hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of other human rights advocates put pressure on the Nigerian government to intervene on Safiya's behalf, Safiya is finally free. On Monday, a Nigerian court in Sokoto state threw out Safiya's conviction, ruling that the initial conviction was improper, since the incident in question had occurred before the Sharia laws against it had come into force.

I was thrilled to hear that justice was finally being done for Safiya; at the same time, I'm concerned that this one moment of hope will persuade human rights activists that the problem in Nigeria is in the past. It is anything but. The strict Sharia court that imposed and then lifted Safiya's sentence is still one of many operating in the northern states of Nigeria.

And women are still being prosecuted under these systems of fundamentalist Islamic law for alleged sexual contact outside of marriage, while their male counterparts go free. In fact, a Sharia court in a neighboring state this month sentenced another woman, Amina Lawal Kurami, to death by stoning for conceiving a child while divorced, but no man will share her fate.

Sex outside marriage has various gradations in Sharia law: A divorced woman who has sex is considered to be committing adultery, whereas a sexually active woman who has never been married is considered to have committed a lesser crime. Sharia law is imposed differently in different parts of the world; other traditional punishments under Sharia law include the chopping off of a thief's hand, and the public flogging of a person accused of public drunkenness. By the Sokoto court's interpretation of Sharia, a woman can be convicted based solely on the fact of her pregnancy. Conversely, a man can only be convicted if four eyewitnesses testify that they witnessed the adultery.

Safiya was originally convicted based on one piece of evidence: she was pregnant and divorced. The man who allegedly impregnated her admitted their affair to police, then denied it in court, and no witnesses came forward to contradict him. He was freed for "lack of evidence." Similarly, the man who admitted having had a relationship with Amina Lawal Kurami went free when no witnesses at all (let alone four) came forward to confirm that he had, as Lawal contended, impregnated her. Kurami was convicted based, once again, on one piece of evidence: she had a child.

The sentence that Amina Lawal Kurami now faces, and that Safiya narrowly avoided, calls for the convicted woman to be buried up to her chest with her arms at her sides and for local villagers to throw stones at her head until she is dead. Amina Lawal's sentence is scheduled to be carried out as soon as she has finished breast-feeding her infant.

Sharia law has spread to much of northern Nigeria, largely -- by some accounts -- as a result of public frustration with corruption in Nigeria's secular justice system (the northern region of Nigeria tends to be predominantly Muslim; southern regions are a mix of Christian and animist belief systems). Local communities in states like Sokoto, where Safiya lives, actually demanded that Sharia law be imposed, sometimes against the wishes of local leaders.

Before I am accused of religious intolerance, let me be clear: The argument against these Sharia courts is not about religion. Rather, any system that fancies itself just and honorable should treat those it serves with fairness and dignity. In the case of Safiya Husseini Tunger-Tudu, the Sokoto Sharia court did not do so until it was publicly shamed into it.

Such a system is fundamentally biased against women and a violation of basic standards of human rights to which Nigeria has committed itself. When Safiya heard the news of her acquittal, she told reporters: "Others have committed worse crimes, but because they are men and because they have influence in high places, they are not punished."

Nigeria's Federal Justice Minister Kanu Agabi has asked leaders of the northern states to temper their Sharia courts. Agabi said he made the request after receiving hundreds of letters from concerned people around the world who had heard of Safiya's case. But actually making change may be an uphill battle. Tensions between Muslims and Christians over Sharia have boiled over in recent months. Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, who since 1999 has been trying to mend a country torn by the 16-year reign of a corrupt military government, is himself Christian. He also personally appealed to the Sharia court to spare Safiya, although he did not overrule the local court after her conviction.

Now Amina Lawal Kurami needs our help, just as Safiya did.

Choose any or all of the contacts below to register your concern. Craft your own letter, or cut and paste the following paragraph and include it in your correspondence:

Honorable _______:

I am writing to express my concern about the recent adultery conviction of Amina Lawal Kurami in a Sharia court in Katsina State. Amina Lawal was convicted of adultery and sentenced to be stoned to death. Should such a sentence be carried out, it would be a gross violation of human rights and an embarrassment to the Nigerian government before the eyes of the world. The law under which Amina was convicted is unfair, and the sentence is an affront to human dignity. I encourage you and President Obasanjo to intervene in this matter before it is too late.

___your name____, _____your city/country____

Send your letter to (or call) one or more of the following:

Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations
To email, use this Web-based form.

Kofi Annan, Secretary-General, United Nations
To email, use this Web-based form.

UN High Commissioner on Human Rights
8-14 Avenue de la Paix 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Telephone: +41 (22) 917-9000
Email: webadmin.hchr@unog.ch

Embassy of Nigeria, United States
1333-16TH Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20036
Telephone: (202) 986-8449 or (202) 462-7124
To email, use this Web-based form.

Nigerian Consulate, New York Consulate-General of Nigeria
Nigeria House
828 Second Avenue New York, NY 10017
Telephone:(212) 850-2200 or (212) 808-0301
Facsimile: (212) 687-1476
Email: info@nigeria-consulate-ny.org

Nigerian High Commission, UK
No 9 Northumberland Avenue London WC2N 5BX
Telephone: 0207 839 1244
Facsimile: 0207 839 8746 or
56-57 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1BT
Telephone: 0207 353 3776

Nigerian High Commission, Australia
7 Terrigal Crescent, O'Malley ACT 2606, Canberra
Telephone: (61) 861-322

Nigerian High Commission, Canada
Place de Ville, Tower A Suite 2000 320 Queen Street Ottawa, Ontario
Telephone: 236 0521, 0522, 0523
Email: hc@nigeriahighcommottawa.com

If your country is not represented above, go here to find a Nigerian embassy, consulate, or permanent mission in your region.

Topic : Human_rights
Posted By : Anita
Posted On : March 27, 2002



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