Mon, May 12, 2003 - Page 9 News List

When global e-mail protests backfire

Five million people signed a petition to save a Nigerian woman from being stoned to death. But experts say the protest may do more harm than good

By Libby Brooks  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Over the past week, the Reverend Louise Franklin, a United Reformed church minister from Ilford, east London, has been receiving an unusual number of international calls on her mobile phone.

"It's beginning to really hack me off," she confesses. "I've had people calling from all over the world. All I did was forward an e-mail that was sent to me by another minister."

The e-mail in question, headlined "Amina Lawal set to be stoned on 3rd June", was an urgent appeal to sign an online petition, apparently organized by Amnesty International's Spanish division, highlighting an alarming development in the case of a young Nigerian woman whose case has appalled people around the world. Franklin forwarded the request to friends and colleagues, her e-mail system automatically appending her name and phone number to the file.

Recipients assumed that Franklin was its originator, as the appeal spread virally across the country, and the globe.

"I'd been following the case," says Franklin "and when I got the e-mail [saying that Lawal would be stoned to death within a month] it seemed to me that any sane and concerned person would pass it on to as many people as possible. I don't normally forward things, but because this had the name Amnesty International attached to it I assumed that it was fine."

In fact, it emerged this week, the news that Lawal is due to be executed imminently is untrue and the site on which the claim surfaced is bogus. What is more, rather than helping Lawal's case, campaigners argue, the e-mail and others like it can cause more harm than good. And more importantly, what is really happening in the case of Amina Lawal?

Lawal, a young Muslim woman from Katsina State in northern Nigeria, became an international cause celebre last year when she was condemned to death by stoning after being convicted of adultery.

She was sentenced on March 22, 2002 under Shariah penal legislation, now in place in several northern Nigerian states, after confessing to having had a child while divorced. The man named as the father of her baby girl reportedly denied having sex with her, and the charges against him were discontinued.

Later that year, her sentence was suspended until next January to allow Lawal to care for her baby until she was weaned.

The case pierced the global conscience. A petition started by a local Amnesty group in south London protesting against Lawal's sentence, which was presented to the Nigerian authorities last September, attracted nearly 1.3 million signatories from over 100 countries. (The Spanish Web site -- which displays an Amnesty logo but is not approved by the organization -- has, to date, collected over 5 million names.)

Last December, a number of Miss World contestants pulled out of the competition, scheduled to take place in Nigeria, as a gesture of solidarity with Lawal. The campaign was following hard upon the case of Safiya Hussaini, also an unmarried mother condemned to the same death, who was freed only days after Lawal's conviction.

Since the decision to suspend Lawal's punishment, a team of lawyers has continued to work on the many avenues of appeal which are still open to her. The last appeal was on March 25 this year, adjourned after an insufficient number of tribunal members were available. It was subsequently postponed until after the elections.

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