Babylon revisited

August 26, 2002

HER CRIME was adultery. Her punishment: death by stoning.

Amina Lawal asserted her innocence: The man who fathered the 8-month-old daughter in her arms seduced her with a promise of marriage. But the high court was unmoved. The judgment would stand; the execution would take place once the mother had weaned her child.

Under Hammurabi's Code of Laws (circa 1780 B.C.), Amina Lawal could not escape a death sentence. But the court that upheld this barbaric punishment didn't rule in ancient Babylon. It presides today in Katsina state in Nigeria, one of 11 northern districts to adopt a strict interpretation of Islamic law known as Shariah.

To say the punishment doesn't fit Amina Lawal's crime is woeful understatement. Burying a 30-year-old mother of three up to her neck in sand and then stoning her to death is torture, plain and simple.

The sentence violates numerous human rights codes and Nigeria's constitutional protection against stoning, beheading and amputation.

And in this case, the strict interpretation of Islamic law discriminates against women. Consider this: under Shariah, witnesses are required to convict a man of adultery. But the mere fact that a woman is pregnant can convict her. Amina Lawal told the court that her boyfriend of 11 months had fathered her child. But once he swore on the Quran, Islam's holy book, that he was not the father, he was freed.

This is not the first Islamic court in northern Nigeria to issue a stoning sentence. The first woman, however, won her case on appeal; perhaps Amina Lawal will be as lucky.

Shariah's reintroduction in the northern states reflects the growing discontent among Muslim citizens over crime and the failings of Nigeria's secular judiciary. Religious courts have been reinstated in the north since 1999, when a constitutional government replaced 16 years of military dictatorship. Their return has exacerbated tensions with the region's Christian minority, who have rioted in protest. The government, however, has done little to resolve the situation.

Islamic discontent is defensible in Nigeria, and so are attempts to institute more stringent cultural norms. But allowing religious beliefs to supplant human rights isn't acceptable. If the rule of law -- religious or otherwise -- is to be respected, so must the sanctity of human life be recognized.

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