Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In Nigeria's Muslim north, sentences of amputation and death by stoning are routinely imposed under Shariah, or Islamic law

Katharine Houreld:

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.

If this isn't barbaric, then I don't know what is.


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