(New York, January 8, 2002) - The Nigerian authorities should not carry out the death sentences of local Islamic courts, as happened with the January 3 execution of a man in the northern state of Katsina, Human Rights Watch said today.

It was the first death sentence that has been carried out since Sharia (Islamic law) was extended to cover criminal offences in several northern states of Nigeria.

Several other people in Nigeria have been sentenced to death by Sharia courts– but not yet executed – including a pregnant woman in Sokoto State who was found guilty in October 2001 of having pre-marital sex. Sharia courts have also sentenced defendants to other cruel punishments, including floggings and amputations.

“The death penalty is an inhuman, degrading and cruel punishment which cannot be justified in any circumstance, however brutal the crime of which the defendant is accused,” said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “As the first execution under Sharia in Nigeria, we fear that this may signal a willingness on the part of the authorities to carry out further death sentences in future.”

The defendant, Sani Yakubu Rodi, aged about 21, was hanged in Kaduna Prison on January 3 2002. A Sharia court in Katsina found him guilty of the murder of a woman and her two children: a four-year-old boy and a three-month-old girl. The victims were stabbed to death in their home. Sani Yakubu Rodi was reportedly caught at the scene of the murder and immediately arrested by the police.

Sani Yakubu Rodi did not have legal representation at any stage of his trial; he apparently told the court that he would defend himself. In the initial hearing on 5 July, he pleaded not guilty. However, in a subsequent hearing on 4 September, he changed to a guilty plea. The court sentenced him to death on 5 November. He did not take up the opportunity to appeal, and his death sentence was subsequently confirmed and his execution authorized by the Governor of Katsina State.

Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian Government and judiciary to stop the imposition of cruel punishments and to ensure that international standards of fair trial are guaranteed in all courts, including Sharia courts. Human Rights Watch is also appealing to state governors – who make the final decision in death penalty cases – to commute any future death sentences.

Human Rights Watch also warned that executions under Sharia are likely to heighten tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in northern Nigeria. In recent months there have been violent religious clashes, resulting in killings and destruction.