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Thursday, 17 October 2002
Page: 5443

Senator COOK (6:17 PM) —I rise tonight to talk on the human rights of Ms Amina Lawal. Before I go to the detail of her case, I acknowledge up front and immediately that Senator Stott Despoja raised a question on notice concerning this particular case on 30 August last and that Senator Hill replied promptly on behalf of Mr Downer. I want to acknowledge both the position taken by Senator Stott Despoja on behalf of the Australian Democrats and the position taken by the Australian government in representations in this particular case.

This case concerns an application of sharia law in Nigeria. On Monday, 19 August, the Funtua appeal court in Nigeria refused the appeal of Amina Lawal, a 30-year-old woman, against a death sentence pronounced on her—a death sentence to be carried out by stoning—for having a child outside of marriage and therefore committing a contempt of that fundamentalist law. The judge ruled that she will be executed once she has weaned her eight-month-old daughter. At the moment, the Funtua court has granted defence lawyers 30 days to appeal in this case. On 27 September, Amnesty International presented a 1.3 million signature petition for Amina Lawal to the officials of the Nigerian high commission in London. The official at the high commission reiterated that the Nigerian federal government is opposed to these sentences, expressed optimism that the sentence will be overturned on appeal and also stated, however, that the government will not intervene, so that the judicial process as it is set down will take its course. I have to say this is in line with a statement last month by President Obasanjo that he `will weep for Amina and for Nigeria' if Amina is executed.

Several northern states in Nigeria have introduced new sharia penal legislation, despite the fact that Nigeria recognises many international human rights standards and has signed and ratified many international human rights legal instruments. The federal minister of justice in Nigeria has declared the sentences to be unconstitutional and yet no practical action has been taken to end them. It has to be said that no-one has yet been stoned to death for adultery in Nigeria. A woman convicted under very similar circumstances last year won her appeal a few months ago.

I have acknowledged the role of Senator Stott Despoja. She asked a question about this; the question is of course in Hansard. On behalf of Mr Downer, Senator Hill advised that the Prime Minister had written to the President of Nigeria, President Obasanjo, and made representations in this particular case. He had, in particular, emphasised that the Australian government considered death by stoning to be `a cruel, inhumane and degrading practice' and called on the federal government of Nigeria to ensure that action is taken to prevent the violation of international human rights standards that the execution of this sentence would represent. I also note that Senator Stott Despoja has on the Notice Paper a notice of motion to come before the Senate next Monday which deals with this matter. I imagine it is a notice of motion one could expect, in the normal course, would pass this chamber unanimously.

Some more detail can be given about this case. The Amnesty International web site contains quite a lengthy summary of these circumstances. Some of those circumstances I have announced in this address so far. But let me pick up the Amnesty International report which, in its second paragraph, refers to the man who is alleged to be the father of this baby girl born out of wedlock. It states:

The man named as the father of her baby girl reportedly denied having sex with her and his confession was enough for the charges against him to be discontinued. Amina did not have a lawyer during her first trial, when the judgement was passed. But she has now filed an appeal against her sentence with the help of a lawyer hired by a pool of Nigerian human rights and women's rights organisations. Amina is awaiting trial at home. The Shari'ah Court of Appeal of Funtua, Katsina State, set 27 May as the date for the hearing of Amina's appeal against her sentence to death by stoning.

The report continues with the circumstance of what are her rights under sharia law in this case. On behalf of the Labor Party, I want to indicate our support for the actions that have been taken internationally by the Australian government and by Senator Stott Despoja in this case. We are a country that is proud of our record of human rights. We speak out internationally against human rights abuses. We try to apply the standards that we expect other countries to live by to ourselves and we, as a democracy that values the rule of law, have an obligation, I think, in all of these cases to make our position plain. For the Labor Party, a fundamental part of what constitutes our soul as a party is the recognition of basic human rights.

It is in that context today that Socialist International, an umbrella international organisation with which labour parties and social democrat parties in the world are associated, has announced that a delegation of experts drawn from different legal systems and regions of the world will be in Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria, from 16 to 20 October—that is, now—on behalf of the SI to address the issue of the application of the new sharia based penal codes with the sentences of women such as Amina and Safiya, the earlier women convicted, and other cases in that country that have seized the world's attention.

The delegation is composed of Professor Perry Wallace of the Washington College of Law of the American University, United States of America; Professor Abdelwahab Maami of the Faculty of Juridical, Economic and Social Sciences of the University of Hassan in Casablanca, Morocco; and Dr Gabriel Lansky, an Attorney at Law and human rights expert from Austria. The delegation will meet with the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Chair of the House of Representatives Committee for Women's Affairs, the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, the Secretary-General, members of the Women's Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative and delegations of officials from Kaduna state in the north of Nigeria where sharia law is in effect. I have to report that there has recently been a spread of the adoption of sharia law in the northern states of Nigeria and, according to the Amnesty International web site, 12 of those states now apply that law in their penal code.

I am pleased to associate the Australian Labor Party with this international effort to ensure that the human rights of this woman are respected. I think it is preposterous in the modern day that there ought to be any penalty associated with the allegation that this woman had a baby out of wedlock. It is preposterous to any notion of human decency that there should be a legal penalty applied in those circumstances, let alone a penalty of death and let alone a penalty of death by the barbaric prospect of stoning to death. I do hope that the representations of all of the major parties in this chamber can succeed in ensuring that this woman is granted her human rights and that she is able to have the shadow of the death sentence removed from her and lead a decent life in Nigeria and bring up her child in a manner in which all of us would be pleased and proud to see.