September 22, 2004
If the Shari’a courts had respected the due process rights enshrined in Nigeria’s constitution, many of these sentences would never have been imposed.
Peter Takirambudde, Africa Division exective director

Islamic law courts in northern Nigeria have failed to respect due process rights, resulting in discriminatory and harsh sentences, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report. Human Rights Watch also found that northern state governors have used Islamic law—or Shari’a—as a political tool while condoning serious abuses.

The 111-page report, entitled “‘Political Shari’a?’: Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria,” documents human rights violations since Shari’a was introduced to cover criminal law in 12 northern states. Since 2000, at least 10 people have been sentenced to death and dozens sentenced to amputation and floggings. The majority have been tried without legal representation. Many sentenced to amputation were convicted on confessions extracted under torture by the police. Judges in Shari’a courts, most of whom have not received adequate training, have failed to inform defendants of their rights.

“If the Shari’a 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 Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division.

Some of the human rights violations documented in the report—such as police torture and corruption in the judiciary—are not peculiar to Shari’a. Indeed, they are at least as widespread in cases handled by the parallel common law system.

“State governments and Shari’a courts have not only failed to respect international human rights standards. They have also disregarded what many Muslims argue are key principles of Shari’a itself,” said Takirambudde. “They have concentrated on the harsh aspects of Islamic law while ignoring its principles of generosity and compassion.”

The report highlights discrimination against women within the Shari’a legislation introduced by the 12 states. Women have been especially affected in cases of adultery or extramarital sex, where standards of evidence differ for men and for women, and pregnancy is considered sufficient evidence to convict a woman. Judges have also failed to investigate allegations of rape made by female defendants in adultery cases. The imposition of Shari’a has corresponded to increased restrictions for women in their day-to-day life, affecting their freedom of movement and association as well as their style of dress. Women have been harassed by Shari’a enforcement groups, known as “hisbah,” set up by state governments. The hisbah have also carried out abuses against suspected male offenders, particularly those suspected of drinking alcohol.

As domestic and international concern over the harsh sentences has increased, the momentum for Shari’a has waned in the past year or two. Harsh sentences have become rarer, and several death sentences have been overturned on appeal. However, the legislation providing for these punishments remains in place, and fundamental abuses continue.

In northern Nigeria, many Muslims who had initially supported Shari’a have become disillusioned with the manner in which it has been implemented. They told Human Rights Watch that this was not “real Shari’a” but “political Shari’a,” but are fearful of being labeled “anti-Islamic” if they say so publicly.

“State governors have championed Shari’a simply to boost their popularity. These officials have been willing to sanction serious abuses to enhance their political standing,” Takirambudde said.

However, as popular opinion has shifted, state governors have now become hesitant to carry out the death sentences and amputations that have been handed down. However, they are also not prepared to oppose such punishments. As a result, dozens of people are now facing prolonged periods of uncertainty in detention while an amputation sentence hangs over them. Some have been in prison for more than two years.

The Human Rights Watch report called on federal and state governments in Nigeria and judicial officials to amend provisions of the Shari’a state legislation that violate human rights—particularly provisions for death sentences, amputations and floggings—as well as provisions that discriminate against women. Nigerian officials should stop handing down and executing such punishments. Human Rights Watch also called for due process to be respected in Shari’a trials, and for legal representation to be mandatory in all trials where the offense is punishable by death or amputation.

Human Rights Watch also urged the international community to extend its concern about Shari’a to other human rights issues in Nigeria.

“In parts of the country where there is no Shari’a, grave human rights problems persist,” Takirambudde said. “In recent years, thousands of people have been killed by the Nigerian security forces or in ethnic conflicts. The international community needs to turn its attention to these problems too.”