The adoption of strict Islamic law in 12 predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria was mainly done for cheap political gain, but it has resulted in the systematic violation of citizens’ fundamental human rights, subjecting women to unfair discrimination, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.
The New York-based group said in a 111-page report titled ‘Political Sharia’h: Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria’ that some of the religious zeal that came with the adoption of the legal code from 2000 onwards has waned. But it said that the human rights abuses that came with the introduction of Sharia'h have remained.
Its findings were swiftly rejected by Nigerian supporters of Sharia'h law as western propaganda against Islam.
Yakubu Ali, a judicial official in Sokoto State, the first state to order a convict to be stoned to death for adultery in 2001, said: “Westerners have never liked Islam and we don’t expect them to praise sharia’h.”
Punishments stipulated under sharia’h law include stoning to death for adultery, amputation of limbs for stealing and public flogging for drinking alcohol or premarital sex.
Since Sharia'h law was introduced four years ago, Nigeria's Islamic courts have imposed at least 10 death sentences - mostly for adultery.
However, Human Rights Watch noted that only one execution - for murder - had actually taken place, while several other convictions for capital offences had been quashed.
It also highlighted the fact that dozens of amputation sentences had been quashed and only three had been carried out.
Most of those convicted to amputation were still languishing in jail, it added.
“If the Sharia’h courts had respected the due process rights enshrined in Nigeria’s constitution, many of these sentences would never have been imposed,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the organisation's Africa Division.
The report said people were very often brought before sharia'h courts without legal representation after confessions had been forced from them by torture, only to face judges who were not even aware that the Islamic code required defendants to be informed of their rights.
Women have faced particular discrimination under sharia’h, especially in adultery cases where mere pregnancy is considered adequate evidence of guilt and allegations of rape are hardly ever investigated by judges, the report said.
This situation left male defendants with undue advantages, since Sharia'h rules of evidence require that four witnesses must have seen the man committing adultery or rape, it noted.
"State governments and sharia’h courts have not only failed to respect international human rights standards. They have also disregarded what many Muslims argue are key principles of Sharia’h itself," said Takirambudde. “They have concentrated on the harsh aspects of Islamic law, while ignoring its principles of generosity and compassion.”
The report said the primary motivation of those state governors who introduced strict sharia’h law was to boost their political popularity in the predominantly Muslim states which they ruled. In order to achieve such popularity, they were willing to condone the harsh abuses which the introduction of Sharia'h entailed, it added.
However, Human Rights Watch said that these same governors were now facing international pressure to end abuses and public disenchantment at home over their failure to deliver tangible benefits from the introduction of sharia’h.
Most had therefore become more reluctant to push for death sentences and amputations, it added.
However, this failure to carry out the prescribed sentences was leading many convicts to spend long periods in jail while their fate was decided, the report said.
“Dozens of people are now facing prolonged periods of uncertainty in detention while an amputation sentence hangs over them,” it noted.
Reacting to the HRW report, officials in some of the northern states practising sharia’h insisted that the Islamic legal code was working according to plan.
“Our sharia’h is not political, even though I won’t say there’s no political implication since human beings are involved,” Ibrahim Jirigi, the spokesman for Yobe State government told IRIN. “All that we’re after is to try and curb societal ills and it is working,” he added.
The adoption of Sharia'h law has proved controversial within Nigeria, whose 126 million people are evenly split between a mainly Christian and animist south and a predominantly Muslim north.
There are large Christian minorities in many of the northern states that have adopted Sharia'h and repeated outbreaks of communal violence between Christians and Muslims throughout Nigeria have led to the death of several thousand people in recent years.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions