Yemeni state about to murder woman

There have been reports that a young woman is facing imminent execution by firing squad in Yemen for the murder of her husband, which witnesses say was in fact carried out by her cousin in a property dispute. The “evidence” against this lady consists solely of a confession which she has retracted, saying it was extracted under torture. (Hat tip: Al-Muhajabah, who got the story from Daily Kos.)

This bears striking resemblance to a number of serious miscarriages of justice in the UK in which retracted confessions were a major feature (Stephen Downing, the Guildford Four). The difference here is that someone is facing imminent execution. The usual suspects are already rushing to pronounce judgement on Islam and its Shari’a: a certain ignoramus of a web designer in California declares that the “barbarism of shari’a law is about to claim another victim in Yemen, but the London Times completely ignores the Islamic context”. So, let’s have a look at the Islamic context, and see what major scholars of Islam say about retracted confessions and confessions extracted under torture.

Aisha Bewley has published on her website a translation of Imam Ibn Abi Zaid al-Qairawaani’s Islamic law textbook, al-Risaala. The rulings on homicide, its punishment and its necessary evidences appear here. Note this statement in the explanation:

Confession is when the accused make a voluntary confession without being forced to do so.

Notice, the words voluntary and without being forced. “Force” necessarily means torture. You cannot force words out of people’s mouths, but you can threaten them or torture them until they tell you what you want to hear. So they knew, back in those “dark days”, that “evidence” extracted under torture was unreliable.

(There is a story which has circulated of a man who was tortured by the police of a certain Arab country, and this torture included being given a large amount of mineral water and then being prevented from urinating. The story says that the man was willing to confess not only to what he was being asked to confess, but also to the murders of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and President Kennedy.)

Next, retracted confessions. Again, the source is a Maliki one, this time al-Muwatta, but I can’t imagine that Imam al-Shafi’i would have ruled otherwise.

Book 41, Number 41.1.9: Malik related to me from Yahya ibn Said from Sulayman ibn Yasar from Abu Waqid al-Laythi that a man came to Umar ibn al-Khattab while he was in ash-Sham. He mentioned to him that he had found a man with his wife. Umar sent Abu Waqid al-Laythi to the wife to question her about that. He came to her while there were women around her and mentioned to her what her husband had mentioned to Umar ibn al-Khattab, and informed her that she would not be punished on his word and began to suggest to her by that, that she should retract. She refused to retract and held firm to confession. Umar gave the order and she was stoned.

So, if this lady had retracted, she would not have been stoned. Here is another narration from the same text:

Book 41, Number 41.2.13: Malik related to me from Nafi that Safiyya bint Abi Ubayd informed him that a man who had had intercourse with a virgin slave-girl and made her pregnant was brought to Abu Bakr as-Siddiq. He confessed to fornication, and he was not muhsan. Abu Bakr gave the order and he was flogged with the hadd punishment. Then he was banished to Fadak, (thirty miles from Madina). Malik spoke about a person who confessed to fornication and then retracted it and said, “I didn’t do it. I said that for such-and-such a reason,” and he mentioned the reason. Malik said, “That is accepted from him and the hadd is not imposed on him. That is because the hadd is what is for Allah, and it is only applied by one of two means, either by a clear proof which establishes guilt or by a confession which is persisted in so that the hadd is imposed. If someone persists in his confession, the hadd is imposed on him.” Malik said, “I have not seen the people of knowledge exiling slaves who have committed adultery.”

This post over at al-Muhajabah’s blog has links to places you can write to in order to appeal to those in a position to intervene on the sister’s behalf.

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