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Human rights violations under Shari’a in northern Nigeria

Human rights violations under Shari’a in northern Nigeria

News Date: 
Sharia Watch


Case study: Fatima Usman and Ahmadu Ibrahim (Niger State)

One of the cases which illustrates virtually the full range of human rights violations described in this report is that of Fatima Usman and Ahmadu Ibrahim, a young couple from the village of Lambata, Niger State.  Both were sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.  At the time of writing, their case is still in appeal.  The problems illustrated in this case include the criminalization of consensual sexual relations between adults, use of the death penalty, lack of legal representation, denial of information about the charges, court decisions in violation of due process, including changes in the charges and retroactive application of the law, and corruption within the judiciary. 

Fatima Usman, aged twenty-eight, had been married previously and had four children from her former husband, who divorced her a few years before the case began.  Following the divorce, she began a relationship with Ahmadu Ibrahim, a neighbor aged thirty-two, who was also married, with two children.  Both come from poor family backgrounds; Ahmadu Ibrahim earned his living loading firewood.  According to Fatima Usman, Ahmadu Ibrahim promised to marry her, but when she became pregnant, he changed his mind.  Ahmadu Ibrahim claimed that he had planned to marry her, but that his own wife refused49 and that Fatima Usman’s father didn’t want her daughter to marry him because he was too poor.  Fatima Usman’s father then arranged for her to marry another man, who was not aware that she was pregnant from her relationship with Ahmadu Ibrahim.  Once her new husband discovered that she was pregnant, and Fatima Usman herself confirmed that the baby was not his, he dissolved the marriage.  Fatima Usman’s father then put pressure on Ahmadu Ibrahim to accept responsibility for the baby.  Ahmadu Ibrahim paid 5,000 naira (approximately US$ 35) but was not able to pay any more.  Fatima Usman’s father arranged for her to marry a third man, after the baby was born.  Ahmadu Ibrahim said he could not afford to take care of the baby because it was sick.50

Fatima Usman’s father took Ahmadu Ibrahim to court in the hope of forcing him to accept at least financial responsibility for the baby.  Ahmadu Ibrahim and Fatima Usman both appeared in Upper Area Court Gawu Babangida, in Gurara local government, and were charged with adultery, even though the father’s original claim had related to financial support for the child.  Both admitted that they had been involved in a sexual relationship.  After several adjournments, on August 5, 2002, the judge sentenced them to five years’ imprisonment or a 15,000 naira fine each (approximately US$ 107).  They were both sent to prison in Suleja because they were unable to pay the fine.  Neither of them had legal representation during the trial. According to Ahmadu Ibrahim, the judge did not tell them they could have a lawyer and did not explain the charges.51  While Fatima Usman was in prison, the baby fathered by Ahmadu Ibrahim died.

About three weeks later, on August 27, 2002, the same judge changed the sentence on the basis that there was now Shari’a in Niger State, and sentenced both Fatima Usman and Ahmadu Ibrahim to death by stoning.52 Neither of the defendants were present in the court when the new sentence was announced and they were not directly informed of this development.   Fatima Usman explained how she found out: “We didn’t know the judge had reversed the case to stoning We were taken back to the same court.  They didn’t tell me anything.  They just asked me to sign a paper.  I didn’t know what it was.  They didn’t read it to me.  That same day, I knew we were sentenced to stoning Some people in the court said: ‘This is the woman who will be stoned to death.’  I overheard it as they were talking among themselves.   I felt very scared.  I had not been aware that it was a possibility.”53  Ahmadu Ibrahim was not directly informed either: “I didn’t know what was happening with the case.  I spent eighty-three days in prison.  The day I was bailed, I found out about the change of sentence.  A senior official in the prison told me.  He said I was supposed to be killed but I was now on bail.  I felt very scared and shocked.”54  Lawyers and friends who visited Fatima Usman and Ahmadu Ibrahim in prison were given strict instructions by prison officials not to tell them that they had been sentenced to death.55  The prison superintendent would only allow them to visit Fatima Usman if they did not mention anything about the death sentence. He insisted that the death sentence was just a rumor, even though it had already been announced in the media.  One of the lawyers who visited her in prison was only allowed to talk to her in the presence of prison officials.56

After the judge had changed the sentence, several lawyers became involved in the case and assisted Fatima Usman and Ahmadu Ibrahim in preparing an appeal.  The appeal was filed at the Shari’a court of appeal in the state capital Minna on September 17, 2002.  On October 17, 2002, Fatima Usman and Ahmadu Ibrahim were released on bail. The court of appeal held an initial hearing on June 4, 2003, but the case was repeatedly adjourned, most recently in April 2004. 

The reason why the judge decided to change the sentence, and on what authority he changed the substance of the charges, remains unconfirmed.  This decision did not follow any recognized process; it also violated the principle of non-retroactivity.  According to sources close to the defendants, corruption played a part in the development of the case from the beginning, and the judge who sentenced them may have been bribed and put under pressure. 

Death sentences in Bauchi State

At least three men have been sentenced to death by stoning in Bauchi State.  Two have been acquitted and the third case is in appeal at the time of writing.