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Nigeria Declares Sharia Unconstitutional - 2002-03-21

Nigeria's government has declared the Islamic law, Sharia, unconstitutional. A letter from the country's justice minister calls for governors of the 12 northern states that have adopted Sharia to reconsider their decisions to impose the law.

In his letter, Nigerian Justice Minister Kanu Agabi urged governors of the states to modify their application of Sharia in order to bring it in line with the country's secular laws.

Mr. Agabi alleged that Sharia, as it is being applied, discriminates against Nigerian Muslims by subjecting them to criminal penalties that are more severe than those that are applied to all other Nigerians.

Under Sharia, penalties include the amputation of one's hands for theft. Offenses such as adultery are punishable by death.

The justice minister's declaration follows a wave of international protests over the case of Safiya Husseini, a 35-year-old woman who was condemned last October to death by stoning for adultery. Ms. Husseini is currently appealing the sentence.

Her next hearing is scheduled on Monday.

Mr. Agabi says he has received hundreds of letters from all over the world protesting the types of punishments that have been handed down by Sharia courts. The justice minister said he fears Nigeria may face isolation from other countries if these punishments continue to be handed down.

Nigerian Islamic leaders insist Sharia only applies to Muslims. But its implementation has raised suspicions between Muslims, and Christians who fear their rights may also be infringed under the strict code.

Some Nigerian Muslims say they support Sharia because they see it as a means to rebuild a moral structure in a country rife with crime and corruption. Others complain it has more often been unevenly applied to those who are poor and powerless, while those who are wealthy and influential often go unpunished.

The adoption of Sharia has sparked ethnic and religious clashes that have killed thousands of people during the past two years. It has also deepened a political divide between the predominantly Muslim northern states and the officially secular government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner.