March 25, 2002

LAGOS, Nigeria--A Muslim appeals court on Monday acquitted a Nigerian woman who had been sentenced to death by stoning for having sex out of wedlock, a case that prompted protests at home and abroad and raised fears of religious unrest in the troubled West African nation.

Tambari Usman, one of four judges on the panel hearing the appeal in the northern city of Sokoto, said the evidence presented was insufficient to warrant a conviction.

``Thank you, thank you,'' Safiya Hussaini murmured, as well-wishers translated the ruling from Arabic to her native Hausa language. Her lawyers then whisked her out of the courtroom.

The 35-year-old mother of five was the first of at least two women sentenced to death by stoning since a dozen Nigerian states began implementing Shariah, or Islamic law, two years ago.

Amina Lawal Kurami was condemned to the same fate on Friday in Bakori, Katsina state, just days after President Olusegun Obasanjo's government declared unconstitutional the harshest of Shariah punishments, such as beheadings, stonings and amputations. Kurami was given 30 days to appeal.

In Kurami's case the offense also was having sex out of wedlock. She gave birth to a girl more than nine months after divorcing her former husband. The man she said was the father was acquitted for lack of evidence after he denied the allegation.

Sokoto Gov. Attahiru Dalhatu Bafarawa called Monday's decision ``fair and just'' and evidence of Shariah's effectiveness. Several other northern state governments also say they will continue to uphold the laws, despite the mounting opposition from the government.

Supporters of Shariah defend it as a pathway to Muslim piety and justice, and say non-Muslims can continue to be tried in secular courts. Critics, however, accuse Shariah's backers of driving a wedge between Muslims and Christians, northerners and southerners, for political gain.

Thousands of people have died in Muslim-Christian violence stemming from opposition to the implementation of Shariah in the north.

Hussaini was convicted in October after she gave birth to a girl more than a year after she divorced. The court ordered that she be stoned with the lower part of her body was buried in sand.

Initially she said she was raped by a married neighbor who fled, apparently fearing he would be arrested. Later she said she was pressured into making that accusation, claiming instead that her ex-husband had been the father of the child.

The case provoked outrage well beyond Nigeria. International human rights organizations and women's groups around the world condemned the ruling as well as lawmakers in the United States and Europe.

Rep. Betty McCollum D-Minn., who recently drafted a Congressional resolution calling for Nigeria's government to intervene in Hussaini's case, praised Monday's ruling, but called for stonings to be outlawed as ``gender persecution.''

Obasanjo's government provided lawyers for Hussaini's defense. ``This is a landmark judgment,'' Hurera Akiluattah, one of 11 lawyers defending Hussaini, said by telephone. ``People will think twice about overzealous reporting of these kind of charges.''

Prosecution lawyer Mohammed Bara'u Kamarawa argued last week that the birth of Hussaini's daughter 13 months ago was enough to establish the mother's guilt. But Usman, the appeals judge, said even if that were the case, the offense would have happened before Sokoto State officially implemented Shariah in January last year.

``Before arriving at a conclusion to something carrying such stiff penalties as stoning, care must be taken to prove the charges and eliminate all questions by investigating all issues that are capable of creating doubts,'' Usman said.

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