It sounds an awful lot like the Qatif Girl story, except this time the girl has no supportive husband, no courageous lawyer, and the gang rape results in a pregnancy. The District Court in Jeddah sentenced her to a year in jail and 100 lashes.
After the recent blunders of our very dysfunctional justice system, you would think judges will become more careful when they handle some cases. Not so much, unfortunately.
The latest episode of this depressing, long nightmare comes from a little town in the north, where a 75-year-old Syrian woman was sentenced to 40 lashes, four months imprisonment and deportation from the kingdom for having two unrelated men in her house. The two men, who were reportedly bringing her bread, including one who was her late husband’s nephew, were also found guilty and sentenced to prison and lashes.
So Saudi Arabia takes another slap in the face. It is also a slap in the face for the new minister of justice, who obviously needs to fight really hard in order to end the embarrassments caused by our courts and implement the much publicized changes in the justice system.
It is good to know that the brilliant human rights lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem has traveled to Hail to take the case. He said he plans to appeal the verdict, and I totally trust him to win this battle, not just for the sake of the old woman and the two young men, but also for the cause of justice and human rights in this country.
Not so long ago, criticizing the judiciary was a taboo in this country. But with more people learning more about their rights and finding new outlets to express their dissatisfaction, they began to clearly show their impatience with the performance of the justice system. The system has become a battlefield between reformers who demanded change and conservatives who defended the judges fiercely, arguing that since their verdicts are based on Sharia then they should be unquestionable.
Luckily for the rest of us though, the complaints did not fall on deaf ears. In October 2007, King Abdullah announced a $2bn plan to overhaul the legal system. It is a large undertaking and it will certainly take a long time to see the effects of this plan. The resistance of the old guard in the system will only make this process slower and more difficult. But one of the good immediate effects of this plan is that it has placed the judges under increased scrutiny. The past two years have witnessed a number of high profile cases that attracted much attention from people and the media, not just in Saudi Arabia but around the world.
I think that last week’s case in Onaiza, where a court rejected a divorce petition filed by the mother of a an eight-year-old girl whose father married her to a 58-year-old man, should be seen in that context. Sure, the verdict is outrageous and unfair, but hey, this is the K of SA, a country where judges are not tied to written laws and justice is a subjective matter that pretty much depends on their whims. Does Sheikh Habib al-Habib know that his government has singed the international Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1996? I don’t think he does, and I think he does not care because such international laws are made by mere mortals while he probably believes that he is applying God’s laws.
Abdullah Al-Jutaili, the lawyer representing the girl’s divorced mother, said he was going to appeal the verdict. Let’s hope judges at the appeals court will be wiser than their colleague here when they deal with this case that not only exemplified the kind of injustices the people of this country have to go through when their misfortunate leads them to a court, but also further tarnished the already distorted image of Saudi Arabia in the world.
Saudi Arabia’s top judiciary official has issued a religious decree saying it is permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV networks that broadcast immoral content. The 79-year-old Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan said Thursday that satellite channels cause the “deviance of thousands of people.”
He did not name any particular channel, but many of the top Arab TV networks like Rotana and MBC are owned by members of the royal family or people closely connected to them. Is this the end to al-Lihedan reign at the top of the judiciary system, especially with the upcoming reforms proposed by the king last year? It is about time.
UPDATE: Al-Lihedan says he was misunderstood and that his statement has been taken out of context. Yeah, right. Whatever!
Abdullah Al-Alsheikh, the Minister of Justice, has recently given a lengthy interview (Arabic) to Asharq Al-Awsat where he made some interesting comments about the performance of the ministry and other related issues. MOJ has become under increased scrutiny following bizarre judgments in some high profile cases such as the Qatif Girl case.
I was disappointed to read that a committee from MOJ is working on the US$ 1.86bn plan the King ordered to overhaul the judicial system in the country. How can the very same people who created, or inherited, the current system, and didn’t see anything wrong with it until the King spoke, be responsible to implement the kind of radical changes proposed in the plan when they seemed for a very long time rather comfortable with the status quo?
I think it would have been better to bring people from outside the establishment to fix it as I don’t expect much from those who didn’t produce much in the first place. Actually, using the word “system” to describe the present situation of the legal process is some sort of a compliment. “Chaos” is the word I would use to describe what citizens have to endure in the courts.
We suffer from a sever shortage in the number of judges: the idea of having only 600 judges to serve the needs of 25m population is simply incomprehensible. According to legal experts, this shortage is the result of the current method of choosing judges which is based on regional, tribal and religious considerations, instead of qualifications and experience. The direct effect of this situation is that most cases takes years and years to be resolved, violating the basic human right of access to a fair speedy trial.
Another urgent matter that MOJ must take care of is the obvious need to a clear set of codified laws. Currently, people are at the whims of judges who can in the absence of any specific reference pass completely different judgments on very similar cases. Say someone stole a car; he could be lucky to catch a pleasant judge who happens to be in a good mood that day and sentence him to three weeks of community service, or he could be unlucky to catch a cranky judge on a bad day and sentence him to 150 lashes plus 2 months in jail.
The minister said they are still studying codifying the Sharia, and they will continue doing that over the next few months. I am afraid that after they take forever to finish this study they may conclude that they don’t need to codify anything. Unlikely, but possible considering the recent history of this ministry.
As the new reforms on the legal system are yet to be implemented, I guess that some judges thought they would use whatever left of time for the current system to demonstrate their misjudgment and lack of intelligence. It was not enough for them to sentence the Qatif girl to 90 lashes a year ago, so they decided to more than double the number of lashes plus six months of jail. The girl is a rape victim, but apparently being raped is not enough to spare her the punishment for something called ‘khulwa’.
Now what kind of ‘khulwa’ that would take place in front of a crowded shopping mall is beyond my comprehension, but that’s just me. I’m pretty sure our esteemed judges and those who support this bizarre ruling have many justifications to present upon request, but then again, who on earth am I to question a court which uses the word ‘sharia’ to legitimize their decisions no matter how absurd these decisions are?
Some people have asked me why I have not written about this earlier, and the reason is because I was angry, disgusted and depressed. Those following me on Twitter have probably seen this, and although I have been discussing the issues with my family and friends who share the same feelings with me, I could not bring myself to write about it without using some kind of language that I’d rather not to use on the blog.
The victim’s lawyer Abdul Rahman Al Lahem has been suspended from the case and faces a disciplinary session because the judge thinks that Al Lahem was using the media to affect the court’s ruling. Now how can the media be used to affect the ruling is anyone’s guess, but why should the judge be affected by the media might be something we should be looking at, because as far as I have been told, our right honorable judges are very wise men who claim to base their verdicts on Qura and Sunna, not some blabbering in the media. Anyway, it is not the first time that Al Lahem faces a problem like this. He has been jailed before for defending reformists but he continued his work as Saudi Arabia’s most important human rights lawyer.
It is up to the appeal court now to confront this unjust ruling and finish the suffering of the girl and her husband who bravely stood up beside his wife. Otherwise, this case might require the interference of the king in order for justice and common sense to prevail. Let’s hope they will prevail in the end.
My recent visit to the United States has consolidated my views on the importance of an independent, transparent and powerful judiciary system for any modern country. That’s why I was very pleased to see that our outcry for a much-needed reform in the justice system in Saudi Arabia has finally reached the King who issued a royal decree to overhaul the whole thing. It is long overdue, probably, but it is here nevertheless, and thank God for that.
The new system is expected to take many of the powers currently possessed by the Higher Judicial Council. Now this is not going to be an easy transition, I think. Sheikh Al Luhaidan and his fellow clerics have been on the top of our judicial system for a long time, and the notion that they will give up their powers peacefully seems unlikely. But let’s hope we won’t see any of the old faces in the new supreme court.