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Nigerian Muslim Convicts in Legal Limbo

ICC NOTE: To really uphold the Shariah, a government has to do more than just threaten to stone people. It’s pretty difficult to fulfill this law because it is so incredibly brutal on a society. According to this article, the Shariah was upheld because the presidency was passed to a Southern Christian.


Feb 13 2007 BAUCHI, Nigeria The Guardian – An Islamic court sentenced Mohammed Sagri to death by stoning months ago, but he doesn’t expect to die any time soon.

“I’m afraid,” said Sagri, a 22-year-old mason who pleaded guilty to a sodomy charge in 2005. Then, staring at the floor of a jailhouse office, he added: “But the sentence is unlikely to be carried out.”

In Nigeria’s Muslim north, sentences of amputation and death by stoning are routinely imposed under Shariah, or Islamic law. But no stonings have ever been carried out, and no amputations since 2001.

Analysts say that’s because Shariah law was implemented as a Muslim show of strength after the presidency passed to Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian.

Shariah, promoted by politicians as an anti-crime measure, applies only to Muslims, who make up about half Nigeria’s population of 140 million.

Many Muslims initially welcomed it as an anti-crime measure, but as rampant theft by government officials continued to go unpunished, some began asking why, in an oil-rich country mired in poverty, Shariah seemed to apply only to the powerless. Even top Islamic court officials say the amputations and stonings ordered by the lower courts have little legal justification.

The result is indefinite jail stays for prisoners waiting for a higher court to overturn their sentence.

No one has counted how many Shariah sentences have been handed down in the 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states that have the system. Mohammed Tawfiq Ladan, a law professor at Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University, estimates at least 40 people – and likely many more – have appeals pending.

In Bauchi state, 16 people are awaiting amputation or death by stoning. All have been granted legal aid to appeal.

Altina Abubakar, 50, sentenced to lose a hand for stealing $40 worth of fabric, has been in prison for 13 months.

“I’m very hopeful my sentence will be overturned,” Abubakar said, smiling at her translator from under a blue prison hijab, the cloth head-cover that Muslim women wear in northern Africa.

“I have never committed a crime before,” she said. “It was as if I was under a spell.”

Lower court judges lack adequate understanding of the extenuating circumstances and high standards of proof needed to impose amputations and death penalties, said the top Islamic law official in Bauchi, Abdullahi Marafa.

“Islam is more interested in setting someone free than punishing an innocent,” he said.

Shariah penalties were widely welcomed a few years ago, and Zamfara, the first state to institute the code, bought an amputation machine. In 2000 and 2001, two thieves lost their hands.

In 2002, in Katsina state, a court imposed a sentence of death by stoning on Amina Lawal, a 31-year-old divorcee, for having sex outside marriage.

After international outcry the sentence was overturned, and President Obasanjo has promised the federal government will intervene to prevent such sentences from being carried out.

The issues has since died out of the headlines. Umaru Yar’Adua, a vocal Muslim supporter of Shariah who was governor of Katsina during the Amina Lawal furor, now promises to uphold Obasanjo’s policy as he runs for president in April elections.

Despite occasional bursts of violence, Muslims and Christians live in the same neighborhoods across Nigeria, and the Islam widely practiced here is far less strict than in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

“The basic problem … is that, unfortunately, the politicians started politicizing the whole Shariah project,” said Ladan, the law professor. “Shariah was a statement of independence by the Muslim north, after a southern Christian was elected to the presidency.”

Ladan said Shariah is not just a criminal justice system but a safety net, providing family counseling and food for the poor. But Nigeria’s government doesn’t provide even the barest public services.

“The Quran doesn’t allow people to impose the strictest sentences without providing basic needs – water, food, jobs,” Lagan said. “The state has failed to provide a social welfare package to the people, so it is not an Islamic state and these punishments are not merited.”

Still, Bauchi prison carries a constant reminder of what might be: a chalkboard tally of pending sentences:

“Amputees: 14. Stonings: 2.”