Nigeria offers security to jittery Miss World organizers

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Nigeria offered security guarantees to jittery Miss World organizers Tuesday, amid threats of protests against the pageant by Islamic fundamentalists and of boycotts by contestants over the death-by-stoning sentence of a Muslim Nigerian woman.

In March, a Shariah, or Islamic law, judge ordered that Amina Lawal be stoned to death while buried up to her neck in sand.

The sentence was upheld by an appeals court in August, prompting international protests and threats of a boycott of the Miss World pageant, to be held Nov. 30 in the capital, Abuja.

Miss World organizers appealed to Nigeria last week to block the death sentence, which is due to be carried out in 2004, after Lawal's baby, born of the illicit union, is weaned.

But Ibrahim Abdullahi, spokesman for the governor of the northern Katsina state where Lawal was sentenced, said she could avoid imposition of the sentence by simply not showing up for her next court appeal.

He told The Associated Press that Islamic law gives Lawal the choice of being able to "walk away" from the judgment.

"I guarantee that if Amina does not show up in court, she will be spared. That is what I would recommend to her," Abdullahi said.

Face-saving way out

The statement suggested a face-saving way out of the controversy for Nigeria's Islamic court system.

However, it was not clear if Abdullahi's statement represented a formal government decision, and he stopped short of offering an unconditional state pardon.

"The Shariah law system must follow its own course," he said.

In a statement Tuesday, Nigeria's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dubem Onyia, said the federal government would work to ensure that Lawal remains unharmed.

"In the history of justice in Nigeria, no woman has ever been punished in such a dastardly manner ... and this will not be an exception," Onyia said, stressing the Supreme Court can "supersede" the Shariah system, if necessary.

Addressing fears that Miss World contestants and organizers could be subjected to violent protests by Islamic fundamentalists who have opposed to the pageant on moral grounds, Onyia said the government "will guarantee the rights and security of everyone, including participants and organizers."

However, Abdullahi said Muslims in Katsina and other states remained unhappy about the pageant's timing during Islam's holy month of Ramadan. Several Muslim youth movements have indicated they could protest, he warned. Nigeria has sub-Saharan Africa's largest Muslim population.

The pageant, called the biggest entertainment event ever to be staged in Nigeria, has faced growing calls for a boycott.

The European Parliament women's rights committee has called for a boycott, and France and Belgium have already said they were withdrawing their pageant contestants. Boycott threats have also come from Switzerland and Kenya.

Guy Murray-Bruce, owner of Miss World's Nigerian franchise rights, said the pageant organizers were "satisfied with the reassurances of government that Amina will not be executed and our contestants and other participants are extremely safe."

Miss World president Julia Morley was due to carry out an inspection tour of sites in eastern Nigeria on Wednesday. The trip originally was scheduled for last week but delayed by efforts to lobby government ministers to intercede in the Lawal case, Murray-Bruce said.

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