14-year-old girl, Wasila Tasi’u who was accused of poisoning the 35-year-old man she was forced to marry was set to go on trial for murder in northern Nigeria on today, a case that has thrown the spotlight on the influence of Islamic law in region.
Wasila has also been charged with the murder of three others who allegedly ate the food laced with rat poison that she prepared and served in April this year, a week after her marriage to Umaru Sani.
Police say Tasi’u confessed to poisoning Sani and his guests at the wedding party in the village of Unguwar Yansoro village, about 60 kilometres (40 miles) outside Nigeria’s second city of Kano.
“She did it because she was forced by her parents to marry a man she did not love,” Kano state police spokesman Musa Magaji Majia told AFP.
Her lawyer Hussaina Aliyu rejects claims that her client made a legally valid confession.
She said Tasi’u was questioned by police without a parent or lawyer present and so any comments she may have made are inadmissable in court.
Aliyu, who works with International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), has sought to have the case transferred to a juvenile court, a bid rejected by justice officials in Kano.
“All we are saying is do justice to her. Treat the case as it is. Treat her as a child,” Aliyu said.
The marriage of teenage girls to much older men is rampant in deeply conservative, mainly Muslim northern Nigeria, especially in poorer rural areas.
The region has since 2000 been under sharia Islamic law which some say does not prohibit the marriage of underage girls.
But Nigeria’s federal, secular laws also apply in the north, creating a confusing hybrid legal system where sharia police try to work with government authorities to enforce criminal justice.
The issue of child marriage has been fiercely debated in Nigeria over the past year, sparked by a proposal from a northern lawmaker that any girl, regardless of her age, should be legally considered an adult once she is married.
That measure has not become law but the proposal was intensely criticised, including by activists in the mainly Christian south who say Nigeria should not permit any application of sharia, even in the north.
For Aliyu, the defence lawyer, this case is not a referendum on youth marriage in a Muslim society.
Rather, she argued, the primary issue is that criminal charges filed against a minor should be handled by a juvenile court.
“She is still a child,” the lawyer said.