Last March, Safiya Huseini -- a Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning by an Islamic court for alleged adultery -- had her sentence overturned by an appeals court in the city of Sokoto, thanks in large part to intense pressure brought by human rights activists against the Nigerian government.
That same month, another Islamic court -- this one in a remote village in the Nigerian state of Katsina -- sentenced another woman to death by stoning after finding her guilty of having a child out of wedlock. Now that her death sentence has been upheld, Amina Lawal Kurami, too, needs your help.
The case of Amina Lawal, like that of Safiya Huseini, promises to spark international outrage from human rights and women's rights groups -- and rightfully so. "If one can be sentenced to death for fornication then it makes nonsense of our democracy," commented Innocent Chukwuma of the Centre for Law Enforcement Education, a legal rights organization based in Lagos. "The majority of Nigerians should be sentenced to death by such a ruling."
The judgment is also likely to exacerbate tensions between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria, where more than 3,000 people have died in sectarian fighting in the past three years. While Nigeria as a whole is almost evenly split between adherents of Islam and Christianity, northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim. Three years ago, Sharia law was introduced in 12 of Nigeria's 36 states, a decision that quickly worsened tensions between the two groups.
Not only does this extreme interpretation of Islamic law, as practiced in Nigeria, consider many instances of sex outside marriage to be crimes punishable by death. It also considers pregnancy sufficient proof of a woman's guilt. For a man, on the other hand, four independent and reputable witnesses must testify to seeing him in the act; barring that rather exceptional circumstance, a declaration of innocence under oath earns him an acquittal. Because the man Amina Lawal identified as the child's father denied the accusation, he was freed for lack of evidence. As for Lawal, the judge who denied her appeal said the death sentence would be carried out as soon as her daughter had been weaned.
I'm in full agreement with Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women: "Until both women and men are treated equally under the law in Nigeria, other women are certain to be sentenced to death for the 'crime' of becoming pregnant out of wedlock, even if it is the result of rape." This outrageous situation simply cannot be allowed to continue. We should begin by forcing the Nigerian government to free Amina Lawal.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, let me make one point utterly clear: The object of my outrage is not Islam, but Sharia law as it's being applied in northern Nigeria. In fact, Islamic and Nigerian law have coexisted in several of Nigeria's northern states for decades, with Sharia courts handling many traditional family disputes. But the introduction three years ago of cruel and degrading punishments like stoning, amputation, and flogging has raised the stakes and shown Sharia at its most brutal. Worse yet, these punishments are typically meted out by untrained judges in trials that make a mockery of international standards of fairness.
As if that weren't bad enough, the system is inherently biased against women and blatantly favors the rich and influential. Safiya Hussaini, the Nigerian woman whose death sentence was overturned on appeal last March, compared her experience with that of the man who fathered her child but went unpunished: "I felt sick when the judge passed down the sentence because of the injustice of it all. It is because I am poor, my family is poor, and I am a woman. He used his money to get away with it." The same double standard has been applied to Amina Lawal, whose conviction rested on a single piece of evidence: her baby. "Clearly a man participated in this," notes NOW president Kim Gandy, "and yet only Amina Lawal Kurami faces death."
Though women are treated with particular severity, they aren't the only victims. Sentences of flogging, amputation, and death by stoning or hanging are becoming more common in the Sharia courts of northern Nigeria. Last January, Katsina -- where Amina Lawal was condemned -- became the first Nigerian state to carry out an execution under Sharia law. The capriciousness and inhumanity of such sentences is the very antithesis of justice. And when any legal system, religious or otherwise, so clearly violates standards of international law and human rights -- standards that Nigeria is committed to uphold -- it's time to translate outrage into action.
Amnesty International has come to the same conclusion. So have other human rights organizations. Even Turkey, not universally regarded as a bastion of human rights, has urged Nigeria to call a halt to Lawal's stoning. In a letter sent to the Nigerian justice minister on August 27, Turkish Justice Minister Aysel Celikel called stoning to death "a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment" which, she noted, is "not applied in most Muslim countries."
Help save Amina Lawal. To send a letter of protest to the Nigerian government, go to Amnesty International's Human Rights Action Center and join activists worldwide in opposing this cruel and unjust system.