- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 12, 2002

ABUJA, Nigeria The 100 international beauties who arrived here for the Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria yesterday have thrown the spotlight on a debate over the use of Islamic law in Africa's most populous country.
Religiously, Nigeria's 120 million people are split roughly 50-50 between Islam and various Christian denominations. Politically, it is a federation split into 36 states, each with its own legal code.
Since Nigeria's 1999 return to civilian rule, 12 states in the mainly Muslim north have, one by one, reintroduced Islamic Shariah law, which metes out punishment such as stoning women to death for adultery.
As the law came into force, it triggered riots between northern Muslims and the region's Christian minority, leaving several thousand people dead.
It also left President Olusegun Obasanjo's federal government in a tight spot. The government believes Shariah criminal law is unconstitutional, but is loath to increase tensions by challenging the north on the issue.
The standoff continues, with tensions never far from the surface. But the decision to hold the Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria has subjected the issue to international scrutiny.
Several beauty queens, horrified by the case of 31-year-old Amina Lawal, who was sentenced to be stoned to death for bearing a child out of wedlock, threatened to boycott the contest.
Stung by this blow to its international standing, the Nigerian government insisted Miss Lawal would be cleared on appeal.
The Miss World contestants were satisfied with this response, but the issue has thrown light on the unusual position of Nigeria's secular government, which has been pressed into enforcing a religious legal code.
At least four persons two women and two men have been sentenced to death by stoning and are now awaiting news of their appeal. Five more young women were sentenced to stoning, then cleared on appeal, their attorney says.
One 17-year-old girl was given 100 lashes while still weaning her illegitimate child, despite her claims that she had been raped.
Two of the defendants, former lovers Ahamdu Ibrahim and Fatima Usman, who were sentenced to death for adultery, were kept imprisoned in a federal jail for 66 days. Miss Usman was pregnant.
All of the defendants were arrested and prosecuted by federal police, officers who in theory answer to Mr. Obasanjo's secular government.
"The police commander is a member of the national security council. Why can't he be told to stop carrying out these cases?" asked Hauwa Ibrahim, an attorney representing Mr. Lawal, Miss Usman and several other Shariah cases free of charge.
At least three thieves have had their hands cut off, and 13 more are in prison waiting for the same punishment to be carried out, including nine children younger than 18, Hauwa Ibrahim told reporters.
Floggings of drinkers is fairly common in the north, sometimes carried out on an ad-hoc basis by the "hisba," pro-Shariah vigilantes.
The Nigerian government claims such punishments are unconstitutional and will be quashed if and when they are appealed to the federal supreme court, outside the jurisdiction of the Shariah states.
But Mr. Obasanjo's administration has not taken the most obvious course to put an end to the matter, which would have been to challenge the constitutionality of the law itself, directly in the high court.
"They are just dealing with this on a case-by-case basis," said Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch. "They have taken no action against the system itself."

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