KATSINA, Nigeria -- An Islamic court overturned the conviction of an illiterate mother sentenced to be stoned to death for having sex out of wedlock, easing pressure on the Nigerian government in a case that has drawn sharp criticism from around the globe.
Lawyers hailed Thursday's ruling as a triumph for Islamic justice, but conservative Muslims in the predominantly Islamic north said Amina Lawal should have been executed.
"It's a big relief for all of us," defense lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim told The Associated Press. "Amina can have her life back, and we are grateful to the court."
Wrapped in a light orange veil and sitting quietly at the front of a small, sweltering courtroom, the 32-year-old at the center of the controversy appeared emotionless throughout the hearing, staring down at the floor, cradling her nearly 2-year-old daughter.
A panel of five judges in white turbans and black robes ruled 4-1 in Lawal's favor, citing procedural errors and arguing she was not given "ample opportunity to defend herself."
Lawal did not speak after the verdict, and police and lawyers hustled her away as reporters crowded around.
Had the sentence been carried out, Lawal would have become the first woman stoned to death in Nigeria since 12 northern states began adopting strict Islamic law, or Shariah, in 1999.
Reading the hour-long ruling in the local Hausa language, Judge Ibrahim Mai-Unguwa argued that only one judge was present during Lawal's initial conviction in March 2002, instead of the three required under local Islamic law.
He noted that under some interpretations of Shariah, babies can remain in gestation in a mother's womb for over five years, opening the possibility that her ex-husband -- whom she divorced two years before giving birth -- could have fathered the child.
Mai-Unguwa also said the policeman who first arrested Lawal in 2002 should have been flogged because he did so in violation of Islamic law, which requires four witnesses to the crime. Lawal was not "caught in the act," Mai-Unguwa said.
Ibrahim, the defense lawyer, welcomed the decision.
"It's a victory for law. It's a victory for justice, and it's a victory for what we stand for -- dignity and fundamental human rights," she said, smiling broadly.
Lead prosecutor Nurulhuda Mohammad Darma said he was "satisfied" with the ruling. The state has 30 days to appeal, but Darma said that was unlikely.
In the sole dissenting opinion, Judge Sule Sada said the conviction should stand since Lawal had confessed. The defense argued the confession was invalid because no lawyers were present when it was made.
The proceedings took place at the main appeals court in Katsina. Dozens of police -- carrying batons, rifles and tear gas -- stood guard, and onlookers peeked through barred windows into the stifling, blue-walled courtroom.
Filling the first row of wooden benches were defense and prosecution lawyers in black robes and white wigs -- leftovers from British colonial rule. Much of the country still relies on a version of the British legal code.
The case had drawn sharp criticism from international rights groups. President Olusegun Obasanjo's government and world leaders called for Lawal to be exonerated, and Brazil offered her asylum.
Katherine Mabille of the French group Avocats Sans Frontieres, or Lawyers Without Borders, said the ruling "was very good for Amina," but pointed out other cases were pending. Her organization is assisting two Nigerians facing amputation of their hands for theft.
On Tuesday, 20-year-old Jibrin Babaji was sentenced to death by stoning for sexually molesting three young boys in the northern town of Bauchi, the independent Punch newspaper reported Thursday.
Three people, including Lawal, have had stoning sentences overturned so far. Aside from the latest case in Bauchi, two others -- a pair of lovers -- are awaiting rulings.
Also under Shariah punishments, one man has been hanged for killing a woman and her two children. Muslim authorities have amputated the hands of three others for stealing respectively, a goat, a cow and three bicycles.
London-based Amnesty International called stoning, flogging and amputation "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" in a statement issued Thursday. The rights groups urged the Nigerian government to ban them.
The introduction of strict Islamic law in a dozen northern states heightened ethnic and religious tensions across the country, triggering violent clashes between Christians and Muslims that left thousands dead.
Most Nigerian Muslims, however, welcomed the implementation of Shariah, saying it is an essential part of their religion and discourages crime. Many in Katsina denounced Thursday's verdict.
"There was no justice. The Quran was ignored," said Masaud Kabir, a 24-year-old student.
Nura Ibrahim Aliyu, a 26-year-old civil servant, said he would "gladly" carry out the stoning himself.
"She has already confessed to her crime," Aliyu said. "That's enough for me."