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To Stone or Not to Stone By: Kari Huus
MSNBC.com | Thursday, September 25, 2003


Under the glare of the international spotlight, a court in Nigeria on Thursday is expected to decide the fate of Amina Lawal, a young mother sentenced to death by stoning. After an 18-month court battle, this is her final chance to appeal for leniency under a harsh interpretation of Islamic law. There are good reasons that this case has drawn widespread attention, but experts say the basic fact of Lawal’s case — condemnation to death for adultery or another sexual offense — is not as rare as it would seem.

NIGERIA IS JUST one of at least two dozen largely Muslim countries or regions where Islamic law, or Sharia, is practiced. But the application of Sharia — which prescribes a code of conduct for Allah’s followers —varies radically from place to place, and is often combined with other types of judicial systems.

Rarely, except under dictatorial regimes such as Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban, does the state impose such harsh penalties as the one meted out to Amina Lawal in Nigeria, where a democratically elected government is in place. And in Muslim states that do invoke the death penalty, it is not carried out through such medieval means as stoning, nearly universally condemned by international human rights groups and governments as an exceptionally cruel means of execution. 

“The Amina Lawal case is extreme because of the international attention it has generated and the complicity at the highest levels of the government,” says Isabel Coleman, a senior fellow and expert on Muslim society at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“In many parts of the Muslim world, there is a good deal of embarrassment” about the Lawal case, says Ali Mazrui, director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University.

The extremity of the case is at least partly due to the unstable political climate in Nigeria, which returned to civilian rule in May 1999, after 14 years under a military dictatorship. With the end of that regime, long-simmering tensions erupted between the mostly Islamic north of the country, and the Christian and animist south. In a political bargain, 12 states in the north instituted an extreme interpretation of Sharia law. Among other things, this interpretation extended the death penalty to cover sexual crimes. President Olusegun Obasanjo consented to the change.

It was in the wake of this change that Amina Lawal, a 30-year-old divorcee, was arrested nine days after giving birth. The local court exonerated Lawal’s alleged sexual partner, who merely denied his involvement, but charged Lawal with adultery — and sentenced her to be buried up to the chest and stoned until “all life leaves her body.” The execution was to be carried out as soon as her baby daughter, Wasila, was old enough to be weaned, or January 2004. 

To some extent, Lawal’s case is a test by the north’s Islamic leaders of their power and independence under the current system. While previous stoning sentences have been overturned at lower levels, this sentence has persisted, and appeals have led Lawal all the way to the Supreme Court of the country.

Obasanjo, a Christian like about 40 percent of Nigerians, has said he expected the Supreme Court would overturn the case. But he declined to step in to halt the process, evidently weighing the political backlash, and the possibility that sectarian violence would again flare in the West African Nation. Muslims make up at least 50 percent of Nigeria’s population.

The president remained on the sidelines of the court battle, despite persistent pressure from around the world to intervene. One of the more embarrassing moments came last November when the Miss World pageant canceled its plans to crown a new beauty queen in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, in a high-profile protest against the stoning sentence. Human rights groups point out that if Nigeria carried out the sentence, it would violate several human rights treaties to which the country is a signatory, as well as the Nigerian constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. 

HONOR KILLINGS 

Unfortunately, say experts, there are people like Amina Lawal around the globe, who are killed for the same crime, while the state looks the other way.      

"This is the unofficial law of many countries," says Coleman. "What is happening (in Nigeria) is happening around the world all the time. You just don't hear about it."      

What Coleman refers to are "honor killings" - often committed by the father or brother of a woman who has had sex outside of marriage, or been raped. The cases are well-documented in Pakistan, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Even as courts in many countries have halted or limited sentencing to harsh physical punishments - such as stoning or chopping off the hand of a thief - they sometimes continue at the village level.       

And critics say many countries have done little to stop the practice of honor killings - by stoning or more modern means - even though it is officially banned. Pakistan, for instance, forbids honor killings, but Coleman says that courts give their perpetrators light sentences - typically six months to a year in prison. Even in Iran, Coleman says, the use of harsh Sharia punishments has tapered off some in recent years, but honor killings are common. "What the constitution says, and how the law is carried out, are two very different, almost unrelated, things," she says. IS IT ISLAMIC?       

The stoning sentence for Amina Lawal, and lower profile honor killings are often justified by invoking Sharia law, but there is a healthy debate among Islamic scholars about what Islam's founding father Mohammed would have said about it.       

"The really curious thing is that we don't see sentences of stoning at all, historically," says Amira Sonbol, associate professor of Islamic history, law, and society at Georgetown University. She maintains that it is only in modern day Islamic states that the punishment is used.       

Stoning is not mentioned in the Koran, experts agree. Mention of the punishment is traceable to the prophetic sayings of Mohammed, which carry less weight than the Koran. Sonbol believes that it is at best ambiguous whether Mohammed was actually advocating stoning for adultery. She argues that stoning and honor killing predate Islam, but that Islam has been hijacked to justify village and tribal practices and beliefs.      

Mazrui says that even if stoning was the prescribed sentence in centuries past, there are provisions within Islam that point toward leniency, including the idea that laws can be modified in light of changing circumstances. He notes that with artificial insemination, the fact of a woman's pregnancy can no longer be sufficient evidence of sexual intercourse, and with forensic evidence, rape can be proven without the presence of four male witnesses, a standard that was almost impossible for prosecution to meet in the past.       

"The struggle we must continue in the Muslim community is (to weigh) how compatible the punishments are with modern interpretation."      

While human rights groups and governments around the world have weighed in heavily on behalf of Amina Lawal, Islamic scholars like Sonbol and Mazrui may ultimately have more sway. They have been arguing, in terms of Islam, that the sentence of stoning is unjustified.      

Lawal's case could set a powerful precedent, particularly in the case of neighboring Niger, which has a similar ethnic and religious composition.      

Sonbol believes that the case could have more far-reaching effects: "The frightening thing is if this execution goes through it's going to appeal to a lot of people," she says.       

She says that similar actions in Afghanistan or Iran were not accepted because those governments were not considered legitimate by many in the world. "But we're talking about … a state actually applying this kind of judgment. … It gives a sense of legitimacy for it in other nations."      

Mazrui, however, believes the case will have the reverse effect. "There are already reservations about capital punishment and about stoning (among Muslims). … If Nigeria were to implement it, it would be such a shock it is more likely to make other Muslims more cautious."     

UPDATE: The Nigerian government has thankfully decided to throw out the stoning sentence against this young mother on two "technicalities": She was not caught in the act and may not have understood the charges against her. The court's opinion, however, leaves the underlying Islamic law in place, and the maintenance of Shari'a law means a stoning sentence could be carried out in the future.




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