Published on Thursday, December 28, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Birth Over, Nigerian Teen Awaits Flogging
by Stephanie Nolen
A Nigerian teenager sentenced to flogging for premarital sex has apparently given birth, according to sources in Nigeria, and so can expect to be lashed 180 times with a cane within a month.
Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, 17, was sentenced to the punishment in September by an Islamic court in the northern Nigerian state of Zamfara. She became pregnant by one of three middle-aged associates of her father, with whom she is reported to have been pressured into having sex.
News of her punishment has galvanized a Canadian and international campaign of appeals to the Nigerian federal government to intervene in the case.
The acting Canadian High Commissioner in Abuja, John McNeish, said yesterday that Ms. Magazu has most likely given birth and is being held in some sort of detention. The young woman's parents told a local reporter on Dec. 6 that she was due to give birth within days, he said. The flogging was to be administered 40 days after the delivery.
There has been no sign that the Zamfara government will not go ahead with the punishment, Mr. McNeish said in a telephone interview from the Nigerian capital.
He said he has been conveying the strong concern of Canadian human-rights groups to the Nigerian federal government.
Mr. McNeish added that he is optimistic about the potential impact of letters and calls from Canadians.
"[Nigeria] is a country that cares about its image," he said. "This is an administration that cares, but it has 20 years of [ethnic infighting] to undo. People shouldn't be cynical [about the effect of letter writing]."
Ms. Magazu has not been permitted to speak to reporters; that is in keeping with the handling of other sentences in Zamfara issued under Islamic law, known as sharia. Judge Idris Umsan Gusau, from the court which found her guilty, said earlier this month that the punishment would be carried out despite international appeals.
It is not clear exactly what form the public flogging will take. Some interpretations of sharia hold that the flogger must hold the Koran under his arm while he administers the blow, which suggest she might survive the flogging; if the lashes are delivered at full force, 180 blows may prove fatal.
Ms. Magazu had no legal representation at her trial, according to Amnesty International. Police in her village of Tsafe reported her to the courts in July, when they noticed she was pregnant; she was sentenced to 100 lashes for having premarital sex. When she was asked to identify the father of the child, she said she could not do so, that it might be any of three farmers, associates of her father.
She was ordered to prove that she had had sexual relations with them; she produced seven witnesses but none was deemed sufficient by the court. Thus she was sentenced to a further 80 lashes for having falsely accused the men of extramarital sex.
Reports conflict as to whether the sex was consensual although, as Mr. McNeish noted yesterday, such details are trivial in light of the severity of the sentence.
The Canadian mission in Abuja received a first trickle of letters when Ms. Magazu's sentence was passed in the autumn, but the amount of mail has swelled as the case garnered increasing attention.
Ian Ferguson, the former Canadian high commissioner (now on leave), met with officials from Nigeria's Human Rights Commission two months ago to express Canadian concern about the case. Mr. McNeish said he has sent more letters of appeal to the rights panel.
He noted that the Nigerian Senate and the Human Rights Commission are holding hearings into Nigeria's broad obligations under international conventions. "Foreigners' expressions of concerns will feed into that," he said.
Some human-rights activists worry that a concerted campaign on Ms. Magazu's behalf could have a negative effect, if Nigerian politicians, especially in Zamfara, balk at international meddling.
But Mr. McNeish said polite letters that remind the government of Nigeria's obligations under international charters, and point out that the world is watching, could have considerable effect.
The Nigerian high commission in Ottawa has received an unprecedented number of faxes, e-mails, letters and telephone calls about the case, an official said last week. But High Commissioner Chief OluwaDare Patrick Bejide refuses to speak about Ms. Magazu, and he has ordered all communications received about her forwarded directly to Abudja.
Zamfara was the first of nine states in the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria to introduce sharia after the return to democratic rule last year.
In March, President Olusegun Obasanjo said he had met with the state governors and brokered a deal to repeal sharia because of concerns that it violates the country's constitution and its obligations under treaties such as the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
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