LAGOS, Nigeria – The Nigerian government is "totally opposed" to an Islamic court ruling sentencing a single mother to be stoned to death and will back the woman's appeal, the justice minister said Thursday.
Government lawyers will assist Amina Lawal's legal team with the case that will test the authority of Islamic courts to hand down such sentences, Justice Minister Kanu Agabi said.
An Islamic court in the northern town of Funtua on Monday rejected Lawal's appeal against the stoning sentence for having sex outside of marriage.
The ruling provoked an international outcry. Governments and human rights organizations around the world urged President Olusegun Obasanjo's administration to intercede.
"The government of this country is as opposed to this sentence as those nations," said Agabi, who is also attorney general. "We are totally opposed to it."
Nigeria is deeply divided about the application of Islamic law, or Shariah, which calls for cutting off a hand to punish theft and death for adultery.
Decisions by a dozen states in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north to adopt the strict Islamic code since 1999 sparked clashes with the region's Christian minority that killed hundreds.
Lawal, 30, was first sentenced in March after giving birth to a daughter more than nine months after divorcing.
Her conviction was upheld on the basis that she admitted having sex outside marriage. The man she identified as her baby's father denied the accusation and was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Foreign governments and human rights groups say the stoning sentence violates international conventions signed by Nigeria.
Lawal's lawyers filed an appeal and stay of execution Monday with a higher Islamic court.
If that fails, they can appeal to the Supreme Court, where the case would force a showdown between Nigeria's constitutional and religious authorities.
A Supreme Court ruling in Lawal's favor would bar Shariah courts from issuing similar sentences in the future.
Agabi said the government did not have the authority to overrule the sentence and appealed for patience.
"The world should understand this government is committed to human rights," he said. "We would like to meet international standards. It will take some time to get there, but we are determined."
Lawal is the second Nigerian woman to be condemned to death under Islamic law for having sex out of wedlock. The first, Safiya Hussaini, had her sentence overturned in March on her first appeal.