Italy: "My future is here" says Nigerian Christian facing stoning

Turin, 3 Sept.(AKI) - A young Nigerian Roman Catholic who faces death by stoning in his homeland for having had pre-marital sex with his girlfriend, has appealed to Italy not to deport him. "I am safe here. I know by the grace of God I will find life here, Felix Eugene told Adnkronos International (AKI).

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is due to begin considering on Monday whether Eugene, 27, can remain in Italy, where he has been living since 2004.

"I know that as a young man, I can do any kind of work," said Eugene. He been working as a casual labourer unloading goods at a supermarket in the northern Italian city of Turin, and working as a hairdresser in his free time.

Magistrates in Nigeria sentenced Eugene to death by stoning preceeded by public flogging. A Sharia court gave him 20 lashes for 21 days for having tried to convert his Muslim girlfriend Fatima to Christianity. " I wanted to marry her, so she could be the mother of my children," he told AKI.

He said he has not been able to contact Fatima or his family since his escape from jail in Niger State and his flight from Nigeria. "I would like to get in touch with my family and Fatima, but I know it will not be easy to find her," said Eugene.

Nigeria's constitution upholds the secularism of the state and its legal system. But in Niger state and 11 other states, mainly in the Muslim majority north, Islamic (Sharia) law is applied.

Life is harsh for Muslim women in Niger State, where women cannot wear trousers, or speak in public to a Christian, Eugene told AKI. "When Fatima's family found out she was pregnant by me, they disowned her," Eugene said.

He does not know what has become of Fatima or their child.

Eugene's family property was torched by his girfriend's relatives when they found out Fatimah was pregnant, and Eugene and his father were thrown into jail.

Eugene was flogged for four days before managing to escape after his father paid a hefty bribe to his mullah-jailer to leave the door of his cell unlocked.

The mullah had his throat slit in a public square after it was discovered that Eugene had fled. He got a lift on a large truck headed for the Nigerian capital, Lagos where his uncle lives.

"My uncle decided I must leave Nigeria," said Eugene.

From Lagos, Eugene managed to reach the northern Italian port of Genova aboard a container ship owned by a company that a friend of his uncle's in Lagos worked for.

"I didn't know where to go, but an Italian woman in Genova helped me. She bought me a train ticket to Turin, gave me 10 euros and told me I might find work there," he said.

"Italians have been doing good for me by helping me," he stressed.

Via diplomatic channels, documents and photographs, Eugene's main lawyer, Anna Rosa Oddone, has verified his story. She told AKI she is optimistic that Eugene will be allowed to stay in Italy.

The UNHCR in Italy, which includes representatives from the United Nations, the Italian government and the police, will rule on whether Eugene can obtain refugee status, political asylum, or humanitarian leave, meaning he could stay in the country initially for up to 12 months.

If his recourse to UNHCR fails, Eugene can apply to the Italian courts but will have to do so in absentia, as he will be deported immediately.

Italy has played a part in succesful international campaigns to save two Nigerian women sentenced to lapidation under Islamic law. Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning for having a baby as a result of consensual sexual relations while divorced, had her sentence overturned and was freed in 2003.

Safiya Husseini was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in 2001 but was later acquitted on appeal and in 2002 was made an 'honorary' citizen of Rome.


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