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Islamic court throws out case of Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning

KATSINA, Nigeria — An Islamic appeals court Thursday overturned the conviction of a Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery, a case that sharpened the divide between Muslims and Christians in Africa's most-populous country.

Amina Lawal would have been the first woman stoned to death since 12 northern states began adopting strict Islamic law, or Shariah, in 1999. Four of five judges on the court voted to throw out the case, citing procedural errors in her trial.

Wrapped in a light orange veil, her eyes downcast, Lawal cradled her nearly 2-year-old daughter as the court announced its decision. Police and lawyers hustled her away afterward.

"It's a victory for law. It's a victory for justice," said defense attorney Hauwa Ibrahim. "And it's a victory for what we stand for — dignity and fundamental human rights."

An Islamic court first convicted Lawal, 32, in March 2002 after the birth of her daughter two years after she divorced her husband. Judges rejected Lawal's first appeal five months later.

Prosecutors, who argued Lawal's child was living proof she committed adultery, said they were satisfied with the verdict but had 30 days to appeal.

The verdict drew international condemnation. The government of President Olusegun Obasanjo called for Lawal's life to be spared, and Brazil offered her asylum.

The Islamic appeals panel ruled the conviction couldn't stand because Lawal wasn't given enough time to understand the charges against her; only one judge, instead of the required three, presided at her trial; and she was not caught in the act of sex out of wedlock.

In the sole dissenting opinion, Judge Sule Sada said Lawal had confessed to the crime and the conviction should stand. But the defense had argued that the court should reject Lawal's confession because no lawyers were present when she made it.

The introduction of strict Islamic law in a dozen northern states has triggered deadly clashes between Christians and Muslims. Five people, including Lawal, have been sentenced to death by stoning. Three have had their convictions overturned.

"We think the death penalty for adultery is contrary to the Nigerian constitution," said Francois Cantier, a lawyer with French group Avocats Sans Frontieres, or Lawyers Without Borders, who was advising the defense. "We think that death by stoning is contrary to international treaties against torture which Nigeria has ratified. We think that death by stoning is degrading human treatment."

Also under Shariah, one man has been hanged for killing a woman and her two children and Muslim authorities have amputated the hands of three people for stealing.

Many Muslims in the predominantly Islamic north have welcomed Shariah, saying it's a key part of their religion and discourages crime.

Lead defense lawyer Aliyu Musa Yawuri said Lawal — a poor, uneducated woman from a rural family — didn't understand the charges against her at the time.

Lawal has identified her alleged sexual partner, Yahaya Mohammed, and said he promised to marry her. Mohammed, who would also have faced death by stoning denied any wrongdoing and was acquitted for lack of evidence.

Lawal is the second Nigerian woman to be condemned to death for having sex out of wedlock under Islamic law. The first, Safiya Hussaini, had her sentence overturned on appeal in March — the same time that Lawal was convicted.