Safiya Hussaini broke into a broad, almost toothless smile in a courtroom in the northern Nigerian town of Sokoto today as she learned that she was spared being partially buried while being stoned to death for allegedly committing adultery.
An impoverished mother of five from the remote Tungar Tudu village in northern Nigeria, Hussaini has been at the center of an international uproar since a lower Islamic court found Hussaini guilty of adultery and under sharia, or Islamic law, sentenced her to be stoned to death while buried up to her waist in sand last October.
The conviction was met with an international outcry that pressured the Nigerian justice minister to issue a statement last week, denouncing the extreme punishments meted out by the country's sharia courts as unconstitutional.
In Sokoto today, the campaign for Hussaini appeared to have worked when a sharia judge, under the glare of the media, overruled the ruling on procedural grounds, maintaining that since the alleged act had taken place before adultery became a criminal offence in the region under Islamic law, Hussaini's case was dismissed.
As her sentence was translated from Arabic to her native Hausa today, Hussaini looked around the courtroom to her many well-wishers in the room, hugged her one-year-old daughter and whispered a soft, "thank you, thank you."
But even as human rights groups welcomed the verdict, it emerged that another woman, Amina Lawal Kuram, had been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in Bakori, in the northern Nigerian state of Katsina.
"We have confirmed that a woman in Katsina has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery," said Michael Hammer, Amnesty International's deputy program director for Africa. "Our people in Nigeria are looking into the matter and we have no further details on the case. But needless to say, this highlights the fact that the issue of the implementation of sharia-based penal codes is still with us."
Proving a Case
For Hussaini, trouble began in the summer of 2001, when the then-pregnant woman was approached by local authorities.
Hussaini had divorced her husband under Islamic law and was living with her father in Tungar Tudu when the authorities arrived at her father's doorstep to question her about her pregnancy.
While clerics and elders in the region accused her of having sex outside marriage, a crime under sharia, Hussaini argued that she was a victim of rape.
Although Hussaini initially said she was raped by a 60-year-old man from the village, her lawyers argued that Hussaini's former husband is the father of her one-year-old daughter Adama and that the village woman made her original statement under duress.
While countries like Saudi Arabia are known to practice a strict interpretation of Islamic law, many moderate Muslim-majority nations such as Malaysia impose a less extreme interpretation.
Under Islamic law as practiced in northern Nigeria, pregnancy outside marriage is sufficient evidence to convict a woman.
In contrast, four eye-witnesses are required for a man to be found guilty of adultery.
A Matter of Politics
Hussaini's case has highlighted the sectarian differences that threaten the West African nation.
In early 2000, more than 1,000 people died in Muslim-Christian clashes as some Nigerian activists accused the federal government of maintaining an ambivalent stance on the contentious issue.
But the fiery resistance of an uneducated 35-year-old woman from Tungar Tudu — with a lot of help from human rights groups and European Union parliamentarians — forced Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's administration to respond to the case last week.
In the government's first response to the implementation of Islamic law since 12 northern states introduced sharia over the past two years, Nigerian Justice Minister Kanu Agabi, a Christian, wrote to the state governors, declaring sharia unconstitutional as it contravened a constitutional prohibition on discrimination.
But several state governors have condemned the federal government's statement and have vowed to implement sharia laws in their states.
Human rights activists have also expressed concern that poor people bear the brunt of sharia's harsh punishments and some experts warn that sharia is likely to be exploited by politicians in the run-up to next year's general elections.