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Islamic court spares Nigerian woman from stoning

KATSINA, NIGERIA — KATSINA, Nigeria - An appeals court overturned yesterday the conviction of the Nigerian peasant woman whose sentence of death by stoning had incited international condemnation and focused attention on Islamic law here.

Amina Lawal, 32, had been convicted of adultery for having had a child out of wedlock, two years after she divorced her husband. She would have been the first woman stoned to death since 1999, when 12 states in the predominantly Muslim north began adopting strict Islamic law, or Shariah.

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Four of five judges on the Shariah court of appeals in the northern state of Katsina voted to throw out the case, saying that the lower court failed to follow rules of procedure.

Among several findings, the judges said that Lawal, who had admitted to a lower court having had a relationship with the man who fathered her child, should have been allowed to retract her initial confession because she had not properly understood the charges against her.

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The court also said the Shariah police had improperly interrogated and arrested Lawal.

Finally, the court cited the so-called sleeping embryo theory in Islamic scholarship that says an infant can be in gestation for up to five years, in effect saying Lawal could have conceived her child when she was still married.

Lawal has identified her alleged sexual partner, Yahaya Mohammed, and said he promised to marry her. Mohammed, who also faced stoning, denied any responsibility and was acquitted for lack of evidence. To prove his guilt under Islamic law would have required testimony of four people who witnessed the couple having sex.

After the appellate ruling yesterday in favor of Lawal, one of her attorneys, Hauwa Ibrahim, said: "That is a victory. She is free. She is discharged."

The lawyer added: "It's a victory for justice. It's a victory for the law. It's a victory for freedom."

Five Nigerians, including Lawal, have been sentenced under Islamic law to death by stoning. Three have had their convictions overturned.

Lawal is the second Nigerian woman to be condemned to death under Islamic law for having sex out of wedlock. The first, Safiya Hussaini, had her sentence overturned on appeal in March.

Catherine Mabille, a representative of Avocats Sans Frontieres, a French lawyers group that was advising Lawal's defense team, said: "The struggle is not over. It's the beginning of the struggle. We have to really deal with Shariah and find arguments so we can win."


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