Saudi Arabia is bristling under international criticism over the sentencing of a woman rape victim to prison and 200 lashes, insisting the West should keep its nose out of its legal system.
But the case has raised voices for change in the kingdom’s Islamic courts.
The punishing of the “Girl of Qatif” – as the rape victim is known, after her hometown in eastern Saudi Arabia – has seemed mind-boggling to Westerners, much like the past week’s trial of a British teacher in Sudan, who was convicted of insulting Islam after her students named a teddy bear Mohammed.
But in both countries, the cases are enmeshed in politics as well as religion. In Saudi Arabia, courts are all Islamic, run by clerics following the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam – but with no written law code. The Saudi royal family draws legitimacy from its conservative credentials, and criticism of the courts has long been rare.
“It’s left to the judge to decide the punishment he sees, which leads to contradictions,” Saudi columnist Saleh Ibrahim al-Tariki wrote in an article published today on the website of the Al-Arabiya TV network – a Saudi-owned station.
In the case of the Girl of Qatif, the woman – a member of the kingdom’s Shiite minority – was attacked in 2006 when she met an old school friend in his car to retrieve a picture of herself from him, since she had recently married. Two men got into the vehicle and drove them to a secluded area where five others waited, and then the woman – 19 at the time – and her companion were both raped, she has said.
In October last year, she was sentenced to prison and 90 lashes for being alone with a man not related to her – a violation of the kingdom’s strict segregation of the sexes. The seven rapists were also convicted.
When her lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, appealed against the sentence and made public comments about it, he was removed from the case, his licence suspended, and the court increased the woman’s penalty to six months in prison and 200 lashes.
The sentences for the seven men were increased to between two to nine years in prison, up from the initial sentence of 10 months to five years.
In a rare criticism of its Mideast ally, the White House last week called the Saudi court ruling “outrageous”.
Saudi Foreign Minster Prince Saud al-Faisal, in the US for a Mideast peace conference, was visibly annoyed. “What is outraging about this case is that it is being used against the Saudi government and people,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
But he said the Saudi judiciary will review the case and it will go before the nation’s highest court.
Saudi writer Sultan al-Qahtani said Saud’s comment might be the “strongest message yet” from the kingdom’s leadership that the judiciary must reform.
“The controversy over the Girl of Qatif sentence might lead to a strong push for the government, which is inclined toward reform, to confront the other elements that insist the kingdom maintain its extreme religiosity,” he wrote this week on liberal Saudi website Elaph.
Saudi King Abdullah issued a decree in October for ambitious reforms in the court system, including establishing a Supreme Court and commercial, personal status and labour tribunals in an attempt to make the often random system more regulated.
But Mr al-Qahtani said the deeply conservative clerical hierarchy is resistant.
On the Qatif case, the judiciary has taken a tough line. Days before Saud’s comments, the Justice Ministry vowed the woman would be flogged and rejected foreign interference.
It also defended the doubling of the sentence against her, insisting she was an “adultress”.
The victim’s husband denied that, stepping forward to defend his wife by calling in to a debate on the case on Lebanese television last week.
“I’m not lacking in manhood or an Arab man’s honour that I would defend a cheating wife,” if it were true, he said on the programme, which did not give his name.
“I feel that in this catastrophe she exercised bad judgment by meeting this man, but how can you or anyone say she committed adultery?” he said and described the effect of the rape on the woman, including months where she didn’t speak or eat and was physically ill.
His public defence reflected the rare openness that has been sparked by the controversy. Usually, families in the Arab world stay deeply silent about rape because of the shame connected to it.
So far, calls for reform within the kingdom have come from only a few voices - but even that is a change from the past, when court decisions went almost completely undiscussed.
In Saudi courts, rules of evidence are shaky, sometimes no lawyers are present, and the judges – appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council – have complete discretion, including on sentencing, except in cases where Sharia outlines a punishment, such as capital crimes.
Mr Al-Tariki pointed to the discrepancies that result. In recent cases, he wrote, three teenagers were beheaded for attacking a petrol station and injuring a worker while a government employee who received thousands of riyals as a bribe was only sentenced eight months in prison. A group of men received 12 years in prison for sexual harassment, compared to the shorter sentences for the Girl of Qatif rapists.
“Turning the criminal to a victim is the worst a judge can do,” he said. “There are so many questions on the Saudis’ minds and the Justice Ministry must answer them, so the average citizen won’t lose his mind and think that justice and injustice are the same.”