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The double-edged sword of Nigeria's sharia

Islamic law cuts crime, but critics say it violates human rights.

(Page 2 of 3)



"He went right into the mosque and criticized the government," says an incredulous Umar Shitu, the judge who heard Sani's case last September. "We tried to make him understand that he can cause anarchy. He refused to listen. We decided to put him in prison."

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Sani spent four months there.

"Islam does not permit someone to criticize the government," explains Abdul Kadir Jelani, the paramount Islamic leader here and an adviser to the governor.

While Islamic scholars debate that point, the message to the people of Zamfara is clear.

Judge Shitu chilled public debate further when he jailed a well-known opposition party supporter on suspicion of throwing a stone at the governor's convoy. In a recent interview in his dingy sharia courthouse, Shitu said with a shrug, "We weren't convinced that he threw the stone." The man spent two weeks in jail anyway.

Politics vs. religion

Many here are clearly disappointed - with the government, not with sharia law.

A middle-aged shopkeeper too fearful to give his name said in a whisper, "We think the people are being deceived. This is not true sharia. This is for the governor. We want true sharia."

Gov. Alhaji Ahmad Sani, who was greeted with cheers on recent tours of Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, dismisses such complaints.

"You cannot cheat God," the governor said in his state house office. "You cannot cheat the people. God knows your heart. If I was not sincere, the people would not follow me."

Western governments, non-profits, and Christians in and outside Nigeria have entirely different criticisms of sharia law. These critics hold up the case of Bariya Ibrahim Magazu. A pregnant, unmarried, and illiterate teenager, Ms. Ibrahim Magazu told a sharia court judge last September that she had been coerced into having sex with three fellow villagers. When the men denied the charge, she was found guilty of fornication and sentenced to 100 lashes. Her sentence was carried out last month before a crowd of about 500 onlookers, a few weeks after the birth of her baby. Western diplomats protested. Newspapers around the world howled injustice.

Frustrated Muslim leaders here say they are misunderstood. They explain that lashings are meant to serve as highly regulated public humiliations not brutal punishments.

According to Zamfara state's legal code: "(f) The executioner shall be of moderate physique; (g) The lashes shall be of moderate force so as not to cause lacerations to the skin of the convict; (h) The executioner shall hold the whip with the last three fingers."

Custom dictates that the executioner holds a book under the arm with the whip to further reduce the force of the blow.

Whips, made from an arm's length strip of stiff cowhide, are sold in most markets and commonly used by public school teachers and parents here to discipline children.

Ibrahim Magazu's village headman would not permit this reporter to interview her, her parents, or her neighbors, but insisted the punishment requirements were met.

Muslim leaders argue that amputations are similarly misunderstood. Amputation is reserved for only the most egregious theft cases. Since sharia law was brought back to Zamfara in January 2000, only one criminal has received the punishment. A cattle thief's hand was amputated last March because he stole purely out of greed (judges had determined that he and his family had sufficient food, housing, and clothing).

Inside a courtroom

These sensational cases notwithstanding, the day-to-day workings of sharia law are actually quite boring. Traders in the market use specially marked measurement cups approved by the government to prevent cheating. Women use female-only taxis to get around town. And everyone is supposed to dress modestly.