KATSINA, Nigeria – A single mother facing death by stoning for adultery had her sentence overturned by an Islamic appeals court Thursday in a case that has sparked international outrage.
A five-judge panel rejected the sentence against 32-year-old Amina Lawal (search), saying she was not caught in the act of adultery and she was not given "ample opportunity to defend herself."
If the sentence had been carried out, the single mother would have been the first woman stoned to death since 12 northern states first began adopting strict Islamic law, or Shariah (search), in 1999.
Lawal, wrapped in a light orange veil, sat on a stone bench, eyes downcast, cradling her nearly 2-year-old daughter as the ruling was announced at the Katsina State Shariah Court of Appeals (search) under heavy security.
The judges read their verdict, which is final, inside a tiny blue-walled courtroom equipped with ceiling fans to ease the sweltering heat.
Lawal was first convicted in March 2002 following the birth of her daughter two years after she divorced her husband. Judges rejected Lawal's first appeal in August 2002.
In an hour-long hearing, the panel said Lawal was not caught in the act of adultery and wasn't given enough time to understand the charges against her.
It also cited procedural errors, including that only one judge was present at her initial conviction in March 2002, instead of the three required under Islamic law.
The case had drawn sharp criticism from international rights groups. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's government and world leaders had called for Lawal to be spared. Last week, Brazil even offered her asylum.
Few believed the brutal sentence -- in which Lawal would have been buried up to her neck in sand and executed by stoning -- would ever be carried out.
Francois Cantier, a lawyer with French group Avocats Sans Frontieres, or Lawyers Without Borders, said the punishment was contrary to the Nigerian constitution and would violate international treaties against torture.
Prosecutors argued Lawal's child was living proof she committed a crime under Shariah.
But lead defense lawyer Aliyu Musa Yawuri said that under some interpretations of Shariah, babies can remain in gestation in a mother's womb for five years, opening the possibility her ex-husband could have fathered the child.
He also argued Lawal's case should be dropped because no lawyers were present when she first testified that she had slept with another man following her divorce. Yawuri said Lawal -- a poor, uneducated woman from a rural family -- didn't understand the charges against her at the time.
Lawal has identified her alleged sexual partner, Yahaya Mohammed, and said he promised to marry her. Mohammed, who would also have faced a stoning sentence, has denied any impropriety and has been acquitted for lack of evidence.
Lawal is the second Nigerian woman to be condemned to death for having sex out of wedlock under Islamic law. The first woman, Safiya Hussaini, had her sentence overturned in March on her first appeal in the city of Sokoto.
The introduction of strict Islamic law in a dozen northern states triggered violent clashes between Christians and Muslims that killed thousands.
Four other people have been sentenced to stoning deaths. Two have been acquitted, and two others -- a pair of lovers -- are awaiting rulings.
Also under Shariah punishments, one man has been hanged for killing a woman and her two children. Muslim authorities have amputated the hands of three others for stealing respectively, a goat, a cow and three bicycles.
Despite such harsh sentences, the majority of Muslims in the predominantly Islamic north have welcomed the implementation of Shariah, saying it's a key part of their religion and discourages crime.