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Amina Lawal Freed - 2003-09-25

An Islamic court in northern Nigeria has freed a divorced woman sentenced to death by stoning for having sex out of wedlock.

An Islamic appeals court in Katsina on Thursday reversed the March, 2002 conviction of Amina Lawal for having a baby out of wedlock.

The offense is punishable by death under the strict Islamic Sharia law that has been re-introduced in mainly Muslim parts of northern Nigeria in the past three years.

Twelve of the country's 36 states have adopted the Islamic penal code. Critics, including leading human rights groups, have assailed the system as harsh, discriminatory and out of place in a newly democratic republic. The existence of Sharia law has sparked riots in some parts of Nigeria, and Ms. Lawal's case has become an international symbol of the dispute.

If Ms. Lawal had lost her second appeal of the conviction, the 31-year-old mother of four would have remained on course to become the first person to be stoned to death since Sharia law was introduced in northern Nigeria in 1999.

Groups supporting Ms. Lawal are pressuring President Olusegun Obasanjo to curb Sharia law. Mr. Obasanjo, who is Christian, had pledged that no stoning will be carried out.

So far, the president has not attempted to legally challenge Sharia courts.