Nigerian Woman Fights Stoning Death

March 18, 2002 -- Her crime, according to the elders, is having sex outside marriage and for that, Safiya Hussaini has been sentenced to death by stoning, a decree that has placed this impoverished woman from the remote northern Nigerian village of Tungar Tudu at the center of an international uproar.

In October 2001, an 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.

In interviews with Western journalists in recent days, some Muslim clerics in the region have carefully explained that Hussaini would be buried in a pit to prevent her escape and that the size of the stones could be a big as an adult fist.

But Hussaini, a mother of five who looks a lot older than her 37 years, is not prepared to go without a fight. She has launched an appeals process that threatens to spark religious tensions in a society simmering with violent Muslim-Christian disharmony.

Unequal Treatment Alleged

Dressed in a tightly secured white veil with her 1-year-old baby girl, Adama, in her arms, Hussaini arrived at the appeals hearing in the regional capital of Sokoto today as the international community carefully monitored the situation in one of Nigeria's most contentious legal cases.

In a packed courtroom, with her daughter crying throughout the proceedings, the four judges today delayed a decision until March 25.

European Union parliamentarians have joined international human rights groups in condemning the sentencing. In a country where thousands have been killed in Muslim-Christian violence since 1999, when sharia started being imposed in a dozen northern states, Hussaini has turned into the unwitting face of a touchy legal issue.

And though Hussaini is illiterate, she has, in the past, displayed a worldly wisdom about the circumstances she now finds herself in.

"Others have committed worse crimes but have not been punished because they have influence in high places," she told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview last week. "But this is happening to me — a poor woman from a poor village."

A Degrading Punishment

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 are arguing that Hussaini's former husband is the father of her 1-year-old daughter and that the village woman made her original statement under duress.

But while more details of the case are expected to emerge during the appeals process, many international human rights groups such as Amnesty International have protested the cruel and degrading nature of the punishment, regardless of the details.

"We are lobbying various authorities in Nigeria within our campaign against the death penalty," said George Ngwa, a spokesman for the London-based Amnesty International. "We are not for or against sharia law, but we are campaigning for a process based on fair trial where a suspect is allowed basic rights such as access to a lawyer and the ability to speak out in his or her own defense."

A Matter of Debate

Sharia law has divergent implementations in various parts of the Islamic world and its interpretations have been a subject of intense debate within the Islamic community.

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 the most common interpretations, adultery can only be proved through a confession or by testimonies from four male witnesses. But Nigeria has adopted a stricter implementation despite widespread dissatisfaction from its Christian population and apparent support from the Nigerian state.

During a news conference last month, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo hinted that should Hussaini win an appeal, it would "gladden hearts."

But Obasanjo, a Christian, has little power to stall what appears to be a popular call for sharia laws, primarily in the Muslim-dominated north.

In a region where law enforcement officials are often seen as inept and corrupt, the swift and harsh punishments imposed by sharia is appealing to some sections of society, although moderate Nigerian Muslims and women's rights groups caution that sharia is being exploited in Nigeria for political ends.

It's a facet Hussaini is not unfamiliar with. The impoverished woman from Tungar Tudu has said she intends taking her case outside the realms of sharia and pressing her case in the Nigerian Supreme Court if she loses her appeal.