Vanguard (Lagos)

10 September 2002

Nigeria: Honour On Safiya May Prompt Death Penalty Ban Worldwide, Says Mayor of Rome

Rome — ROME'S Mayor Walter Veltroni said, yesterday, he hoped the city's conferment of honorary citizenship on Safiya Husseini, the Nigerian single mother sentenced to death by a Sharia court in Sokoto State by storming would prompt a worldwide ban on the death penalty.

Governor Attahiru Bafarawa of Sokoto State had attempted to stall Safiya's travel to Rome to receive the honour.

Saying it was a "beautiful day for Rome," Veltroni formally welcomed Safiya Husseini to Rome's City Hall. She escaped the death penalty imposed in 2000 on appeal after international outrage at the sentence.

Veltroni said now that Safiya's life had been saved, attention should turn to the plight of Amina Lawal, also facing the death penalty for a similar offence under Sharia law in Katsina State. The slight 35-year-old Husseini, who arrived Rome from Lagos on Saturday, sat silently throughout a press conference, cradling her two-year-old child.

"For Safiya, we have lit up the Colosseum and I know that yesterday (Sunday), when she was in the Colosseum and noted the majesty of the place she found herself in, she was very impressed," Veltroni said.

"We hope to be able to light it up again for Amina and we want the citizenship we are giving symbolically to Safiya to be an impulse for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, and recognition for the rights of women, while respecting religious and cultural diversity." Husseini spoke briefly in Hausa at a conference on women's rights in Central Rome later. Her speech was translated by her lawyer, Abdelkader Imam.

She thanked Italians who had campaigned for her release, but was keen to highlight Lawal's case. "Now that I am free I will pray with all my strength that Amina will be spared and I will ask the Mayor of Rome and other authorities who have been interested in my case to help her also."

Nigeria's Ambassador to Italy, Chief Etim Jack Okpoyo, told reporters that Nigeria should be allowed to deal with the Lawal case without being subjected to undue international pressure, such as that which accompanied Safiya's case.

"Let me appeal to the entire community to give us respite on Amina Lawal," he told the press conference. "We have a process, which we have to go through in Nigeria to keep the peace. Amina has to go through this process, but we hope that in the long run she will also be free like Safiya.

"So please, don't write so many letters, don't make calls like you have been doing. We appreciate your concern and we say Amina also will be free one of these days by the grace of God," he pleaded.

The ambassador welcomed Rome's gesture, but said it should "not be just a political gimmick. Let this be a situation that can be translated into solid development between the two countries."

"We are hoping that the government, the people, the religious organisations, the NGOs will come in to assist, at least where Safiya is, because if she is educated, if she is well-off, then she will be able to defend herself."

lHow govs attempted to stall Safiya's journey

Meanwhile, Gov. Attahiru Bafarawa of Sokoto State and Ahmad Sani of Zanfara State have condemned the honour and accused Italy of seeking to convert her to Christianity.

"When I learnt of the invitation I wrote to the State Security Service chief and the Immigration Service asking them not to issue a passport to her," said Gov. Bafarawa. "Immigration honoured my request, but the Women's Affairs Ministry sent a delegation to her village which took her to Abuja where she was given a passport and a visa," he told state radio.

Bafarawa said he had written to President Olusegun Obasanjo to protest.

Gov. Ahmad Sani of Zamfara, also hit out. "Our fear is that Safiya and her daughter will be converted to Christianity, which we believe is the intent of the invitation," he told a news conference broadcast on state radio. "Even if she escapes conversion, her daughter may not escape the orchestrated plan to domicile her in Rome which means that she will get a Christian upbringing," he warned. Datti Ahmad, President of National Council on Sharia in Nigeria (NCSN) said in Kano that: "There is a sinister plan behind the invitation." He said that as Husseini had been tried and eventually found innocent by a Sharia Appeal Court, it was the legal code and not the accused woman who deserved to be honoured.

Gov. Bafarawa in a separate interview on BBC yesterday said Safiya was kidnapped to Rome.

The interview:

"I understand that you were worried because it was Rome and Catholicism and an attempt to make her a Christian.

That's her own fear.

So what do you think is going to happen to her in Rome?

We don't know.

Why are you interfering in someone else's business that does not concern the government or governor.

I have to be worried.

She was not abducted. She was not kidnapped. She went on her own free will.

She was kidnapped. Her father was asked. They said they were not aware of her going."

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