Lawyers call for reform in Nigerian sharia justice system
A team of Islamic sharia enforcers, called Hisbah, seen on patrol in an open pickup truck, in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, on October 29, 2013 - by Aminu Abubakar
Taxi drivers Nasiru Abubakar and Anas Mohammed were freed by the sharia appeal court in the northern city of Sokoto on March 2, which ruled there were procedural errors in their 2010 trial.
The pair, both 25, had spent three years behind bars and were unaware that they could challenge the conviction and sentence until a prison official took up their case with the state government.
"The (appeal) judge picked holes with the judgement of the lower court, which he said was not in conformity with the provisions of Islamic sharia law, as a result of which the two young men were discharged and acquitted," court clerk Bube Lawwali told AFP.
According to the judge, the lower court did not establish the case of theft and the 10,000 naira ($63) in cash which was allegedly stolen was never found in the men's possession.
In addition, the complainant, who alleged the suspects had stolen the money when he used their taxi, did not even attend court to give evidence during the initial trial.
- Low benchmark -
Sharia courts run parallel to the state and federal judicial systems in northern Nigeria and are largely used by Muslims to resolve property, inheritance and matrimonial disputes.
They made headlines internationally earlier this year when a number of men appeared before a sharia court in the city of Bauchi accused of homosexuality, which is theoretically punishable by death.
Lawyer Umar Ado said the taxi drivers' case was significant because it highlighted glaring problems in the system.
"The appeal judgement has far-reaching implications and exposes the inadequacies in the capacity of the sharia judges and procedural abuse in the sharia courts," he said.
Another lawyer, Abdulhamid Zubairu, added that no witnesses were even summoned to give evidence at the trial and the defendants were unaware of their statutory right to appeal.
"The judge ought to have told them they could appeal the sentence within 30 days, as a matter of procedure," he said.
Ado attributed the situation to what he called the "flagrant disregard to judicial procedures" by many judges and a "lack of full grasp of sharia legal provisions".
Currently anyone with knowledge of Islamic law and school examination certificates can be appointed as a sharia court judge, explained Ado.
But he argued that was not good enough: some judges delivered judgements too quickly, "playing to the gallery" and a public who wrongly believe that sharia is all about passing harsh sentences.
"Before a sharia judge is appointed, he should undergo rigorous competence tests and background checks to ensure he is the right person for the job," he added.
- Need for reform -
Another lawyer, Suleiman Hassan, said a lack of appropriate sanctions against incompetent judges was not helping matters and made some judges "flaunt procedures with impunity".
Since the reintroduction of the sharia justice system in 12 northern states 15 years ago, dozens of amputation sentences have been handed down.
But only two have been carried out, with the remainder overturned on appeal largely for "procedural error and outright contravention of the sharia law", said Ado.
The acquittals on appeal include the cases of at least four women who were sentenced to death for adultery after they gave birth out of wedlock.
"In fact, some people currently languishing in jail were unjustly imprisoned without any help coming from anywhere," said Kabiru Dodo, a government official who initiated the taxi drivers' appeal.
A senior judicial official in Zamfara state, which pioneered the re-introduction of sharia, acknowledged that the issues needed to be tackled.
"We are aware of such shortcomings on the part of sharia court judges and I believe the ongoing nationwide criminal justice system reform intends to rectify this anomaly," he said on condition of anonymity.
"It is, however, not something that can be rectified overnight. It is a gradual process that requires a tactful but firm approach."