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BBC News Online, London, 1 October 2007
Inside a Sharia Court
This World's Ruhi Hamid gains a rare glimpse inside a Sharia court in the state of Zamfara in northern Nigeria.
"You say you are a Muslim - so why aren't you wearing a veil?"
Wait a minute, I thought, I am the one who is supposed to be asking the questions.
My interrogator was Judge Isah, a compelling, wiry, figure at the centre of a hive of activity.
He works in the New Market Upper Sharia Court - a grand name for a somewhat careworn, faded avocado municipal building in Gusau, the capital of northern Nigeria's Zamfara province.
Sharia law - which is an Islamic system of law based on the ancient verses of the Koran - was introduced to the mainly Muslim state of Zamfara by Governor Ahmed Sani, after the defeat of the military dictatorship in 1999.
It was the first state in Nigeria to introduce Sharia. Ferocious fighting broke out and previously integrated communities were split along religious lines, leaving many dead and thousands displaced.
Initially hundreds of clerics had to be fast-tracked into presiding over these new Sharia courts as judges. However Isah Hamza Ismaillah Moriki is one of a new breed of judges in northern Nigeria who have completed a university law degree in both the Common law and Sharia law.
A devout Muslim, Judge Isah explains that Sharia is "a path which leads to Almighty Allah, so you cannot separate Sharia from Islam and Islam from Sharia".
Over the weeks I spent at his court, I witnessed the man's passion, his conviction, his wry humour, and the speed with which he administered his justice. And I was astonished by the extraordinary variety of cases he sees each week.
Land and matrimonial disputes
The occasional prison van brings prisoners to court on criminal offences such as mobile phone theft, burglaries or violence. But 90% of cases the Sharia court deals with are land, matrimonial or inheritance disputes. They are often argued with great intensity.
In one case, Sa'adiyya Ibrahim claimed that since her separation from her husband, he had refused to perform his Islamic duty of providing for her. He insisted he had.
In the end, the judge decided in her favour because she swore it was true on a copy of the Koran. Judge Isah - which literally means Jesus - was convinced the plaintiff would not risk divine condemnation by making a false oath. He ordered the husband to pay up, which he did without protest.
Westerners often assume that Islamic justice always discriminates against women. But many women in Nigeria turn to Sharia courts for help.
Judge Isah seems to be respected by all who visit the court.
His court works more like a community centre, where every morning he sees people in his chambers. His aim is to mediate and avoid unnecessary expensive court cases that clog up the system.
This plays an important role in more way than one. Sharia is attractive to local people because anyone can bring a case to court and represent themselves.
"In our Sharia law, we can summon anyone to appear provided there is an allegation to defend. No exceptions," explained Judge Isah.
Sharia is often perceived as oppressive and brutal by Westerners, because of punishments like stoning to death for adultery and amputations for theft.
One hot, dusty afternoon, I followed three young men being taken from the courtroom to the market square. They were convicted of alcoholism -- strictly frowned upon in Muslim society -- and received 80 lashes in front of a gathered crowd.
Judge Isah explained that public humiliation was part of the punishment. It also served to deter others who were tempted to indulge in vice.
"By stopping people from drinking alcohol, society will be in harmony and sanity," he said. "More over the sentence of 80 lashes is in the Koran so no one can question it".
Floggings may still be fairly common in Sharia law, but amputations are rare. According to the governor of Zamfara, they are meant to act as a deterrent.
"The objective of the law was clearly stated, the objective is not to punish but to deter people from committing offences," he said.
In Zamfara, there are only two recorded cases of people who have had their hands amputated for stealing. According to official records both of them refused their right of appeal and insisted the punishment be carried out.
I found one amputee, Lawalli Isah, still languishing in the local prison, but when questioned about the severity of the punishment, he simply said: "It is in my religion, I accept it".
Today a thief in Judge Isah's court is more likely to be punished by imprisonment or lashings.
One defendant, Kabiru Bello, was accused of stealing a bag of biscuits. He insisted that it had fallen off the back of a lorry. He says he was attacked by a mob for stealing and taken to the police station who arrested him and allegedly beat him until he admitted guilt.
When it came to court, the prosecution failed to provide evidence, witnesses or a complainant to the crime. But what was most surprising was that Judge Isah didn't question what Kabiru said was a forced statement or the alleged physical beatings by the police. He took the statement as fact and was not perturbed by the possible mishandling of the case by the police.
The judge found the defendant only guilty of keeping the property for his own needs. The punishment for theft is amputation, but because there was no break and entry, Judge Isah gave Kabiru the lesser sentence of 10 lashes or a year in jail. Not surprisingly he chose the 10 lashes, which were immediately carried out in the court's courtyard.
Treatment of women
It is Sharia's treatment of sexual offences that has caused the greatest international controversy. In Islamic law, both adultery and rape require four witnesses to be present at the "act". A woman's evidence is still only worth half of a man's, and in adultery cases she cannot be a witness at all.
Soon after the introduction of Sharia to the northern states of Nigeria, two women were condemned to death by stoning for adultery. But, with the help of human rights activists their convictions were overturned on appeal to the federal Nigerian courts.
Most of the people that I met in Zamfara said they welcomed Sharia. It has cut down drinking and violence, and the court is no longer an intimidating place of wigs and gowns, doing business in a language that they do not understand.
After six weeks in Zamfara, I can see how Judge Isah's court functions well as a small claims court for this rural Islamic society. But my reservations about Sharia remain the same. For me, the sticking points are still the floggings and the amputations, and the undeniably unfair treatment of women in rape and adultery cases.
This World: Inside a Sharia Court was broadcast on Monday 1 October 2007 at 2100 BST on BBC Two.
BBC Copyright MMVII
RELATED VIDEO CLIPS
Two video clips from the TV documentary described above. Offenders sentenced to whipping are shown receiving their punishment.
Clip 1 of 2
This clip last 4 minutes. Three men are found guilty of drinking alcohol. The court sentences them to 80 lashes each and they are driven straight to the market square to be disciplined before a crowd of local people. The punishment is delivered with a small whip as the culprit (who keeps all his clothes on) bends over a bench. (We might note in passing that there is evidently no consistency across Nigeria; the whip shown in use in these Nov 2002 cases in Katsina State seems much bigger, and the modus operandi is quite different. Also, several other reports from Nigeria refer, rightly or wrongly, to "strokes of the cane", but this is clearly not a cane.)
The reporter, as she watches this whipping, is sceptical about its deterrent effect, but later in the clip she concedes that crime levels have fallen sharply since Sharia law was introduced. The judge and his court are, we are told, respected by the populace; certainly these three offenders appear to accept his ruling without complaint, and submit meekly to the punishment. The lashes plainly hurt, and 80 of them must hurt quite a lot; but, stroke for stroke, this is evidently nothing like as severe as a Singaporean or Malaysian caning.
HERE IS THE CLIP:
Clip 2 of 2
The second clip also lasts 4 minutes. A man had initially been charged with burglary, punishable with imprisonment; but the police fail to prove in court that he had done anything more than steal a packet of biscuits. The judge sentences him to a whipping of 10 lashes. A court official takes a small whip down from its hook on the wall behind the judge. The punishment is administered immediately in front of the court building. Again a bench is used, this time with the culprit lying flat along it to receive the strokes across his clothed backside. This is clearly a minor punishment for a minor offence. Once it is done, he is free to go and is seen walking home. The judge explains to the reporter why he thinks flogging of this mild sort is a humane and just penalty.
HERE IS THE CLIP:
IMPORTANT: Copyright in this video material rests with the BBC. These brief excerpts are reproduced under the "fair use" doctrine for private, non-profit, historical research and education purposes only. They must not be redistributed or republished in any commercial context.
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