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Last Updated: Monday, 1 October 2007, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Inside a Sharia Court
This World's Ruhi Hamid gains a rare glimpse inside a Sharia court in the state of Zamfara in northern Nigeria.

Judge Isah in his court in Zamfara, Northern Nigeria
Judge Isah says that Sharia law cannot be separated from Islam

"You say you are a Muslim - so why aren't you wearing a veil?"

Wait a minute, I thought, I am the one who is supposed to be asking the questions.

My interrogator was Judge Isah, a compelling, wiry, figure at the centre of a hive of activity.

He works in the New Market Upper Sharia Court - a grand name for a somewhat careworn, faded avocado municipal building in Gusau, the capital of northern Nigeria's Zamfara province.

New breed

Sharia law - which is an Islamic system of law based on the ancient verses of the Koran - was introduced to the mainly Muslim state of Zamfara by Governor Ahmed Sani, after the defeat of the military dictatorship in 1999.

It was the first state in Nigeria to introduce Sharia. Ferocious fighting broke out and previously integrated communities were split along religious lines, leaving many dead and thousands displaced.

Initially hundreds of clerics had to be fast-tracked into presiding over these new Sharia courts as judges. However Isah Hamza Ismaillah Moriki is one of a new breed of judges in northern Nigeria who have completed a university law degree in both the Common law and Sharia law.

A devout Muslim, Judge Isah explains that Sharia is "a path which leads to Almighty Allah, so you cannot separate Sharia from Islam and Islam from Sharia".

Over the weeks I spent at his court, I witnessed the man's passion, his conviction, his wry humour, and the speed with which he administered his justice. And I was astonished by the extraordinary variety of cases he sees each week.

Land and matrimonial disputes

Judge Isah's Sharia court in Zamfara in northern Nigeria
Sharia law was introduced to Zamfara in 2000
The occasional prison van brings prisoners to court on criminal offences such as mobile phone theft, burglaries or violence. But 90% of cases the Sharia court deals with are land, matrimonial or inheritance disputes. They are often argued with great intensity.

In one case, Sa'adiyya Ibrahim claimed that since her separation from her husband, he had refused to perform his Islamic duty of providing for her. He insisted he had.

In the end, the judge decided in her favour because she swore it was true on a copy of the Koran. Judge Isah - which literally means Jesus - was convinced the plaintiff would not risk divine condemnation by making a false oath. He ordered the husband to pay up, which he did without protest.

Westerners often assume that Islamic justice always discriminates against women. But many women in Nigeria turn to Sharia courts for help.

Judge Isah seems to be respected by all who visit the court.

His court works more like a community centre, where every morning he sees people in his chambers. His aim is to mediate and avoid unnecessary expensive court cases that clog up the system.

This plays an important role in more way than one. Sharia is attractive to local people because anyone can bring a case to court and represent themselves.

"In our Sharia law, we can summon anyone to appear provided there is an allegation to defend. No exceptions," explained Judge Isah.

Public floggings

Sharia is often perceived as oppressive and brutal by Westerners, because of punishments like stoning to death for adultery and amputations for theft.

One hot, dusty afternoon, I followed three young men being taken from the courtroom to the market square. They were convicted of alcoholism - strictly frowned upon in Muslim society - and received 80 lashes in front of a gathered crowd.

Judge Isah explained that public humiliation was part of the punishment. It also served to deter others who were tempted to indulge in vice.

"By stopping people from drinking alcohol, society will be in harmony and sanity," he said. "More over the sentence of 80 lashes is in the Koran so no one can question it".

Floggings may still be fairly common in Sharia law, but amputations are rare. According to the governor of Zamfara, they are meant to act as a deterrent.

"The objective of the law was clearly stated, the objective is not to punish but to deter people from committing offences," he said.

 Lawalli Isah had his hand amputated for stealing under Sharia Law
Lawalli had his hand amputated for stealing three bicycles
In Zamfara, there are only two recorded cases of people who have had their hands amputated for stealing. According to official records both of them refused their right of appeal and insisted the punishment be carried out.

I found one amputee, Lawalli Isah, still languishing in the local prison, but when questioned about the severity of the punishment, he simply said: "It is in my religion, I accept it".

Imprisonment

Today a thief in Judge Isah's court is more likely to be punished by imprisonment or lashings.

One defendant, Kabiru Bello, was accused of stealing a bag of biscuits. He insisted that it had fallen off the back of a lorry. He says he was attacked by a mob for stealing and taken to the police station who arrested him and allegedly beat him until he admitted guilt.

When it came to court, the prosecution failed to provide evidence, witnesses or a complainant to the crime. But what was most surprising was that Judge Isah didn't question what Kabiru said was a forced statement or the alleged physical beatings by the police. He took the statement as fact and was not perturbed by the possible mishandling of the case by the police.

The judge found the defendant only guilty of keeping the property for his own needs. The punishment for theft is amputation, but because there was no break and entry, Judge Isah gave Kabiru the lesser sentence of 10 lashes or a year in jail. Not surprisingly he chose the 10 lashes, which were immediately carried out in the court's courtyard.

Treatment of women

It is Sharia's treatment of sexual offences that has caused the greatest international controversy. In Islamic law, both adultery and rape require four witnesses to be present at the "act". A woman's evidence is still only worth half of a man's, and in adultery cases she cannot be a witness at all.

Soon after the introduction of Sharia to the northern states of Nigeria, two women were condemned to death by stoning for adultery. But, with the help of human rights activists their convictions were overturned on appeal to the federal Nigerian courts.

Most of the people that I met in Zamfara said they welcomed Sharia. It has cut down drinking and violence, and the court is no longer an intimidating place of wigs and gowns, doing business in a language that they do not understand.

After six weeks in Zamfara, I can see how Judge Isah's court functions well as a small claims court for this rural Islamic society. But my reservations about Sharia remain the same. For me, the sticking points are still the floggings and the amputations, and the undeniably unfair treatment of women in rape and adultery cases.

This World: Inside a Sharia Court was broadcast on Monday 1 October 2007 at 2100 BST on BBC Two.

SEE ALSO
Timeline: Nigeria
26 Sep 07 |  Country profiles
Sharia stoning for Nigerian man
17 May 07 |  Africa
Gay Nigerians face Sharia death
10 Aug 07 |  Africa

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