Judge Ibrahim Maiangwa said, reading the judgment of the appeals court in the Katsina state, according to Reuters, ”It is the view of this court that the judgment of the Upper Sharia Court, Funtua, was very wrong and the appeal of Amina Lawal is hereby discharged and acquitted.”
Four of the five judges on the court voted to overturn the verdict, pointing to procedural errors in her original trial among their other concerns.
“It’s a victory for law. It’s a victory for justice,” defense attorney Hauwa Ibrahim told the Associated Press. “And it’s a victory for what we stand for — dignity and fundamental human rights.”
The woman’s defense was multi-tiered, including that Lawal, a poor and illiterate woman from a rural family, did not fully understand the charges against her at the time of her trial.
Prosecutors appeared to accept the court’s decision.
“For now that is the position of the judgment,” Isa Bature, the chief prosecutor for Katsina state said, according to Reuters. “Her appeal has succeeded. I have up to three months to study the judgment and appeal if I want to, that is if it is necessary.”
Lawal quietly held her nearly 2-year-old daughter in her arms as the judges announced their decision and was quickly ushered out of the courthouse as the ruling was handed down, according to media reports.
After the hearing, she told CNN, “I am happy. God is great and he has made this possible. All I want is to go home, get married and live a normal life.”
Lawal, a 31-year-old divorcee, was convicted in an Islamic court in March 2002 after she gave birth to a child outside of marriage. Sexual relations outside of wedlock are considered punishable by death under Sharia, which contains several edicts of morality and lifestyle that vary widely in their interpretation around the world.
She was sentenced to be buried up to her neck and stoned, although the court agreed to postpone the punishment until her child, a girl named Wasila, had been weaned. Judges rejected Lawal’s first appeal five months after the initial sentence.
The alleged father of Lawal’s child, Yahaya Mohammed, denied responsibility and was later acquitted.
The case sparked attention from governments around the world as well as international human rights groups, Nigerian women’s rights groups and media outlets. The European Union had urged Nigerian authorities to intervene on Lawal’s behalf and the government of Brazil offered her asylum.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government called for Lawal’s life to be spared and had reportedly promised to become involved if her case had reached Nigeria’s Supreme Court.
Divisions run deep between Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim communities, leading to violent clashes in recent years that have left an estimated 10,000 dead.
Lawal’s case has been a high-profile test of Nigeria’s use of Sharia law, since its reintroduction to 12 predominantly Muslim northern states after the end of military rule in the country in 1999.
According to media reports from northern Nigeria, there was little initial public reaction to the decision to overturn Lawal’s conviction. Reuters reported that police in Katsina had braced for a potential backlash from Muslim fundamentalists.
“I would have preferred Amina to be stoned to death. She deserves it,” one man who came to the courthouse to hear the decision told CNN.
Five people, including Lawal, have been sentenced to death by stoning under Sharia. Three have had their convictions overturned. Other Sharia punishments include amputations and floggings for offenses such as theft.