An Islamic appeal court in Nigeria saved a single mother from being stoned to death on Thursday when it overturned her conviction for adultery.
The court in Katsina State in northern Nigeria, acquitted 32-year-old Amina Lawal, who was sentenced to death by a lower Islamic court last year for having a baby 10 months after she was divorced.
Four trucks carrying heavily armed riot police surrounded the courtroom, which was packed with lawyers, journalists and curious bystanders, as the four to one majority verdict was read out.
The case had aroused international attention.
Hauwa Ibrahim, the lawyer representing Lawal, told reporters: "This is a victory for justice and the rule of law."
The lead prosecution lawyer, Nurulhuda Mohammed Darma said: "I am personally satisfied with the judgment, but if my bosses decide we will go on to another appeal."
Lawal was sentenced to death by a lower court under the strict Islamic Shariah (Law) in March 2002 after she had a baby out of wedlock. That court ruled that she should be stoned to death after she had weaned her 20 month old baby.
The man who she accused of making her pregnant was acquitted after he swore by the Koran that he was not responsible. In August 2002, an upper Shariah court confirmed the sentence. Lawal, through her lawyers, then appealed to Katsina state's highest Islamic court.
Since last year, European Union governments and international human rights activists had been urging Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to intervene in the case.
He has refrained from doing so overtly, but Obasanjo, a christian from southern Nigeria, said recently "no stoning would take place."
The police in Katsina braced for a possible backlash from Muslims in the conservative and deeply religious state after Thursday's ruling. Katsina is one of 12 northern states that have adopted the Islamic law over the last four years.
Amina Lawal cuddled her baby and stared at the floor throughout the one hour judgment. Before the five Shariah judges concluded their readings, she was escorted from the courtroom via a back door and whisked away in a police vehicle.
Khadi Ibrahim Mai-Unguwa who read the majority verdict said four of the five appeal judges had found Lawal's conviction by the lower courts to be defective on several grounds.
"We have dissolved the judgments...based on the facts before us. We therefore discharge and acquit Amina Lawal," he said.
The judge said the lower Shariah court in the town of Bakori had erred when it failed to question the accused at least four times to affirm her earlier confession.Yet the same court accepted a statement from police prosecutors that Lawal had had sexual relations with one Yahaya Mohammed, he added.
Mai-Ungwa also pointed out that Mohammed should have sworn by Allah that he was innocent, not the Koran.
He said that the Upper Shariah Court in Funtua erred because the police prosecutors failed to produce four witnesses, as demanded by Shariah law in such matters. Furthermore, the prosecutors did not also tell the court whether they caught Lawal in the act of having sex, he added.
The four Khadis accepted all the twelve grounds of appeal put forward by Lawal's lawyers, saying the Upper Shariah Court erred when it rejected the withdrawal of an earlier confession made by the accused.
Shariah allows the withdrawal of confessional statements anytime before the execution of a sentence. "As such the appellant is not liable to suffer capital punishment in this case," they ruled.
Khadi Sule Sada Kofa Sauri, who read the dissenting ruling said: "There was nowhere the appellant declared that she had withdrawn her confession. Since this could not be done by proxy, what is left is for Wasila [the child] to be weaned and Lawal be stoned to death."
Lawal is one of five people to be sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in Nigeria over the past three years. She was freed as another Shariah court in Bauchi state in northeastern Nigeria sentenced a man to death by stoning for sodomy.
The introduction of strict Shariah law in Nigeria has increased tensions between the country's Muslim north and Christian-dominated south, leading to outbreaks of sectarian violence in which thousands of people have died.