The case is a high-profile test of Nigeria’s use of strict Islamic law, known as Sharia, since its reintroduction to 12 predominantly Muslim northern states after the end of military rule in 1999.
A decision on her appeal could come as early as Sept. 25.
Amina Lawal, 31, arrived at a Sharia Appeals Court in the Katsina state to a swarm of riot police, journalists and human rights workers, according to media reports.
The soft-spoken Lawal appeared overwhelmed by the crowds at the courthouse.
“I’ve never been this afraid,” she said as she entered the court, holding her nearly 2-year-old child, according to the Associated Press.
Lawal, a divorcee, was convicted in an Islamic court in March 2002 after she gave birth to her third 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.
The alleged father of Lawal’s child denied responsibility and was later acquitted.
Dozens of volunteer lawyers from human rights and charity groups have rushed to aid Lawal, who lost her first appeal in August and has had subsequent hearings postponed or canceled, presumably due to the crush of international attention. Lawyers are listing several different grounds for their current appeal, including technical challenges to the way that her case was originally presented.
Aliyu Musa Yawuri, one of Lawal’s lawyers, was quoted by news services as arguing that under some interpretations of Islamic law, a woman could possibly carry a “sleeping embryo for a period of five years commencing from the date of divorce,” raising the possibility that her former husband could have fathered the child.
Her lawyers also argue that she was already pregnant when the strict Sharia penal code was enacted in her state, meaning her alleged adultery would carry only a prison term under pre-Sharia criminal codes, according to an account by South Africa’s News24.
Sharia court prosecutor Nurulhuda Mohammad Darma said the fact that Lawal was pregnant and divorced was “enough evidence” of a crime.
“There is no other excuse that is acceptable,” Darma told the court, but added in closing remarks that the prosecution “would not object if the court finds a good reason to set Amina free,” according to the AP.
He later told the media that the prosecution would drop the case if Lawal wins this appeal, the AP reported.
The presiding judge warned Lawal’s lawyers not to further delay the process, saying her case has “dragged on for too long.”
Lawal can continue to appeal her case through regional courts and eventually to Nigeria’s Supreme Court.
“I expect an acquittal,” head defense lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim told reporters. “In case that does not happen, we are prepared for the worst. We will go up to the Supreme Court.”
While similar stoning sentences have been handed down in other cases, Nigeria has yet to see such a punishment carried out. Hand amputation has been carried out as punishment for theft.
“Amina is very worried. Sometimes she can’t eat. She wants to see the end of this case so that she can marry and have a normal life,” her uncle, Magaji Liman, told reporters, according to the AP.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has said that his administration opposes stoning sentences, although his government is generally reluctant to intervene in religious matters. Tensions between Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim communities have led to violent clashes in recent years, leaving an estimated 10,000 dead.
Earlier this month, Sarumi Mohammed, a Nigerian man convicted of raping a 9-year-old girl had a similar stoning verdict overturned on the grounds of his plea of insanity.
The Sharia Court of Appeal in Dutse, the capital of the Jigawa state, threw out the stoning sentence and ordered Mohammed to be taken to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.