Preacher with 86 wives gets court reprieve

LAGOS Thu Nov 13, 2008 11:52am EST

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LAGOS (Reuters) - A Nigerian court said an 84-year-old Islamic preacher with 86 wives should be released from jail after he was held for failing to heed a call by local leaders to divorce all but four of the women, his lawyer said.

The authorities in central Niger state had charged Mohammed Bello with "insulting religious" creed and "unlawful marriages" after local chiefs and Muslim leaders gave him a September 7, 2008 deadline to comply with sharia, Islamic law, which allows a man to have no more than four wives.

He was jailed after he failed to comply.

"The Federal High Court granted Bello unconditional release yesterday," defense lawyer David Ikotun told Reuters by phone from Abuja.

Niger is one of 12 predominantly Islamic northern states that started a stricter enforcement of sharia eight years ago.

Bello, who lives with his wives and about 170 children in the town of Bida, had pleaded not guilty to the charges at an Upper Sharia Court in the state capital Minna. But the judge refused him bail and ordered he be remanded in prison.

Before his detention, the preacher had filed a petition at a Federal High Court in the Nigerian capital Abuja seeking to enforce his rights and to be protected from local chiefs and Muslim leaders who threatened to banish him if he failed to divorce 82 of his wives.

"The judge also ordered that the inspector general of police provide him with adequate protection to ensure that his fundamental human rights are not infringed," Ikotun said, adding that Bello was still in custody.

The Niger state government said it will appeal the judgment, the lawyer said.

The court adjourned Bello's hearing to December 12.

His case has stirred controversy in Africa's most populous country of 140 million people, roughly half of whom are Muslims.

The preacher had received a number of death threats after Nigerian media began reporting on his situation in September, his spokesman said.

(Editing by Randy Fabi and Matthew Jones)

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