Rough Justice

updated 09/02/2002 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/02/2002 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Birth meant death in northern Nigeria last week. On Aug. 19 Amina Lawal, a divorced Nigerian woman, sat in a crowded courtroom in the town of Funtua, cradling the youngest of her four children, as an Islamic high court upheld the draconian sentence she had received earlier this year for having sex out of wedlock: death by stoning. "God is great!" cried many of the spectators—all male—in the public gallery. Lawal, 30, burst into tears, clutching 8-month-old Wasila more tightly. Her lawyers vowed to appeal to a still higher Islamic court and, should that fail, to Nigeria's secular Supreme Court. "It's unfair," said Clara Obazele, a government spokeswoman, of the ruling. "A woman cannot be pregnant without a man, so where is that man? He deserves similar punishment."

Lawal, like many of her countrywomen, has already seen more than her share of hardship. Growing up poor in a hamlet on the edge of the Sahara, she gave birth to her older three children during a 14-year-long first marriage forced on her as a child. Lawal testified during her original trial last March, at which she had no lawyer, that she became pregnant with Wasila during a relationship with a local tax collector, Yahiya Mohammad, who she said had promised marriage. Though Mohammad initially admitted paternity, he was later freed after swearing on the Koran that he had not had sex with Lawal. The court's version of mercy was to stay her execution until she weans Wasila, which it said might not be for two years.

Well before then, however, Lawal's supporters hope that an international outcry over her sentence will help get it overturned, as was recently the case with the first Nigerian woman given the death penalty for adultery. "As a Muslim scholar, I am horrified," says Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. "You are seeing a corruption of Islam, which emphasizes compassion and tolerance."

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