Will She Be Stoned to Death?

updated 09/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

She deserves to be stoned to death," the prosecutor declared, "because pregnancy in a woman who is not known to be married is clear evidence of extramarital sex."

In a packed, sweltering Nigerian courtroom Aug. 27, Amina Lawal sat impassively on a bench and rocked gently back and forth as attorneys argued over whether she should live or die. Her crime? Adultery, according to an Islamic court that convicted the 31-year-old in March 2002 shortly after she gave birth to daughter Wasila, now 20 months old. The sentence, according to Muslim law, or sharia: that she be buried up to the neck and stoned "until the life leaves her body." When human rights groups took up her cause, the illiterate mother of four found herself at the center of a moral storm, the symbol of a draconian form of justice that has sparked protests, petitions and candle-light vigils around the world. Now Lawal was appealing her case in an Islamic court in the town of Katsina, nodding off occasionally as the lawyers talked.

Then, after six hours, a ray of hope: The prosecutor, Nurulhuda Mahmud Darma, who had taken Wasila in his arms and given her candy during a prayer break, seemed to soften in his closing argument. "Our prayer to this court is for it to accept our explanations and uphold the [death] sentence," he said. "However, we would not be opposed to this court having reservations...strong enough to save Amina from execution." A panel of judges won't hand down a decision until Sept. 25, but Lawal's camp, which lost its first appeal last year, was elated. "We are sure we are going to win," says her lead attorney, Hauwa Ibrahim. Lawal herself is philosophical: "Everyone will die at one time or another, even those who will stone me. Why be afraid?"

In truth, Lawal may have little to fear. The Nigerian constitution prohibits cruel and inhumane punishments and, while avoiding direct involvement in the case, President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian like 40 percent of his citizens, says he fully expects Lawal's sentence to be overturned by the Supreme Court. Even so, her case has vast significance for the 40 million Nigerians who are subject to Islamic law, which was instituted in 12 of the country's 36 states after the 1999 collapse of 15 years of brutal military dictatorship. Few of those people would have support systems like Lawal's to take them all the way to the highest court. "We want the case to be a precedent," says Krista Riddley of Amnesty International. Should Lawal be exonerated, it might save the lives of a young couple currently facing adultery charges, and boost the argument of Amnesty and other human rights groups working to end similar punishments in sharia-law states such as Saudi Arabia.

For Lawal it's all understandably overwhelming. One of 13 children, she married and divorced twice and bore three children before she began seeing toll collector Yahaya Mohammed. After 11 months she became pregnant. She says they had planned to wed, but when his family objected, he broke things off. Nine days after giving birth, Lawal was arrested. (Mohammed denied having sex with her and was exonerated.)

Now she awaits her fate quietly at her three-hut family compound in the village of Kurami, where goats and chickens roam dusty streets and there is no electricity or running water. Once plagued by ulcers and nightmares, she has settled into a routine, doing chores and caring for Wasila. Villagers see her as a kind of Islamic Hester Prynne. "Anybody who commits a crime against our religion should be judged according to the Koran," says Ibrahim Ahmed, a local civil servant. Remarkably, Lawal's own Muslim faith is unshaken. "One day Allah will bring everything to an end," she says. "And that will be it."

Richard Jerome
Silvia Sansoni in Nigeria and Eileen Finan in London

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

From Our Partners