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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 18:33 GMT
Living on Nigeria's death row
Safiya Husaini and her daughter Adama
Safiya says her daughter was the result of rape
Dan Isaacs

In the northern Nigerian state of Sokoto, a woman is awaiting the outcome of an appeal against a conviction for adultery by an Islamic, or Sharia, court.

If the appeal fails, Safiya Husaini will be stoned to death.


They will dig a pit, and then they will put the convict in a way that she will not be able to escape, and then she will be stoned

Aliyu Abubakar Sanyinna
Sokoto attorney general
Under a revised Sharia criminal code recently introduced in the mainly Muslim states of northern Nigeria, the punishments of amputation for theft, stoning for adultery and flogging for the drinking of alcohol are all now on the statute books.

Although sentenced to death, Safiya Husaini is not in custody. She is living with her family in the small village of Tungar Tudu, 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the state capital, Sokoto.

In a small hut, sitting next to her blind father, she tells her story. She holds a little girl in her arms.

Almost a year old now, Adama was conceived as a result of the allegedly adulterous relationship.

Obligations

This is very much a village dispute. The man, Yakubu Abubakar, already married with two wives, was called in to Safiya's family house to discuss the relationship.

He was asked by Safiya's father whether he was prepared to marry her, or at the very least pay for the upkeep of the child.

According to Safiya, in order to escape his obligations, the man took the matter to the police, and ultimately to the courts.

Safiya Husaini
Safiya has already spent two months on death row

Safiya now claims that she was raped. It is the basis of her appeal against the death sentence.

The man she names as responsible was also charged with adultery but he was acquitted by the same Sharia court that convicted Safiya.

A confession of adultery that he made to her family, in the presence of two policemen, was retracted in court.

He even told the judge he had never met Safiya, despite coming from the same village.

Under Islamic law, if a man withdraws his confession, he must be acquitted, unless four men can be made to testify that they witnessed the adulterous act.

No confidence

For a woman, the burden of proof is simpler.

The only evidence required, in the version of Sharia law adopted in Sokoto state, is that the women has become pregnant outside marriage.

If the women was considered a virgin before the relationship, the charge is fornication and the sentence is flogging.


He [Adama's father] has been acquitted, why should he be made to suffer again?

Abdulkadar Imam Ibrahim
Safiya's lawyer

But if she is married or even, as in Safiya's case divorced, then this is considered to be adultery and the mandatory sentence is death by stoning.

Safiya's lawyer, a man called Abdulkadar Imam Ibrahim, does not inspire confidence.

He is optimistic that the appeal will be successful but he does not appear very clear about the facts of the case.

Un-Islamic

He lives in Sokoto but has not visited Safiya's village, nor has he asked for Yakubu to appear in the appeal court to answer the charges of rape.

"He has been acquitted, why should he be made to suffer again?" asks Mr Ibrahim.

Even more worrying is that Mr Ibrahim says he has been pressured not to take the case by his friends and colleagues.

He implies that there are those within the Muslim establishment who are keen that the stoning does go ahead, and that these same people see the appeal process as inappropriate and even un-Islamic.

Adama
If Safiya is stoned to death, what becomes of Adama?

Across town is another lawyer, in fact one of Mr Ibrahim's classmates at law school.

Aliyu Abubakar Sanyinna is the Sokoto state attorney general.

"It is the law of Allah. By executing anybody that is convicted under Islamic law, we are just complying with the laws of Allah, so we don't have anything to worry about."

How big would the stones be? "It could be something like this," says the attorney general, holding up his fist.

And how would the execution be carried out? "They will dig a pit, and then they will put the convict in a way that she will not be able to escape, and then she will be stoned."

The precise method, explains Mr Sanyinna carefully, is up to the judge in the case.

"Another way is that she could be tied up against a tree or pillar."

Political fireworks

It is not difficult to see why, in a country with overall as many Christians as Muslims, the introduction of these punishments into law has created a great deal of controversy and anger.

Although Christians are not directly subject to Sharia laws, there is still the feeling that the imposition of Islamic law in the northern states serves to enforce the political will of Muslim leaders over the substantial minority of non-Muslims living there.

More than 3,000 have been killed in riots since the introduction of Sharia criminal punishments two years ago.


It is the law of Allah. By executing anybody that is convicted under Islamic law, we are just complying with the laws of Allah, so we don't have anything to worry about

Aliyu Abubakar Sanyinna, Sokoto attorney general
It is a situation that seriously threatens the country's stability particularly in the run up to parliamentary and presidential elections next year and in 2003.

It also threatens to become a major source of contention between the federal government in Abuja, and the dozen northern states which have adopted the harsh Sharia penal code.

The federal Minister of Justice, Bola Ige, has condemned the stoning verdict as "harsh and crude" and said that stoning to death must not happen in Nigeria in 2001.

That Mr Ige is supporting Safiya¿s appeal against the Sokoto state judiciary, is a clear indication of the contradictions built into Nigeria's devolved legal system.

If Safiya¿s appeal eventually reaches the federal Supreme Court in Abuja, which under Nigeria's legal system it can, then we can expect serious political fireworks.

With a sentence of death still hanging over her head, Safiya Husaini is sadly little more than a pawn in a much larger political game.

See also:

19 Oct 01 | Africa
Nigerian appeals Sharia sentence
05 Nov 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
The death of a Nigerian village
14 Sep 01 | Africa
Nigerian sentenced to stoning
09 Sep 01 | Africa
Dozens killed in Nigeria violence
15 Oct 01 | Africa
Analysis: Nigeria's Sharia split
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