(New York, October 23, 2001) - Human Rights Watch today condemned a recent ruling by an Islamic court in Northern Nigeria that sentenced Safiya Hussaini Tungar-Tudu to death by stoning. The court issued the death sentence after finding her guilty of having pre-marital sex.

"Women have a basic right to control their sexual autonomy," said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "When a woman is punished so severely for having pre-marital sex, her right to make free decisions regarding her body is violated."

The Islamic court in Gwadabawa, Sokoto State, in northern Nigeria sentenced Ms. Tungar-Tudu to death after finding her guilty of having pre-marital sex, a punishable offense under Sharia law. Ms. Tungar-Tudu, who is pregnant, has until November 8 to file an appeal. The court's ruling is pending approval by the governor of Sokoto State after which a date to mete out the punishment will be fixed. The man she allegedly had sex with was set free by the same court after concluding that it lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute him for the alleged adultery.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty. Additionally, international law strictly prohibits the imposition of capital punishment on a pregnant woman.

In recent years, several states in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria have extended the application of Sharia law to criminal offenses, imposing Sharia punishments for theft and other crimes, and criminalizing acts such as pre-marital sex and alcohol consumption.

Ms. Tungar-Tudu's conviction for pre-marital sex is the second one to be reported in northern Nigeria. In September 2000, an Islamic court in the northern state of Zamfara, sentenced Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, a teenage girl, to 180 lashes for pre-marital sex and bringing false charges against men with whom she allegedly had sex. Despite protests by international and Nigerian human rights groups against her sentence, officials authorized the flogging of Ms. Magazu. Even though her appeal remained pending, the sentence was carried out; she was lashed one hundred times on January 19, 2001.

In another case, a Sharia court found a fifteen-year-old boy guilty of stealing money. He was sentenced to the amputation of his hand. Amputation is an extreme form of corporal punishment, which is expressly prohibited by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Human Rights Watch wrote to the governor of Kebbi State on October 12, 2001, expressing its concern over the case.

Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian government to protect Ms. Tungar-Tudu from the arbitrary meting out of a harsh and unacceptable punishment, and to ensure that the courts operate in accordance with international human rights law and the bill of rights in Nigeria's own constitution.