Legal Matters

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.

Al-Lahem Awarded Human Rights Prize

LahemAbdul-Rahman al-Lahem, the brave Saudi lawyer and human rights activist, has received the International Human Rights Lawyer Award from the American Bar Association (ABA). He said this award “values the work of a large group of activists in Saudi society who are defending human rights.”

Al-Lahem’s name has become associated with a series of high-profile cases in the country where he volunteered to defend people against the government and the official religious establishment. He has been a vocal critic to the judicial system and this has gained him many enemies among the conservatives.

He certainly deserves to be awarded, but here comes the sad part: he will not be able to receive the award in person during a conference held in Vienna in July unless a four-year-old travel ban imposed on him by the authorities here is lifted.

I think the ban has been imposed on him following his defense for the the three so-called “constitutional reformists” back in 2004. At the time, he was jailed for defending their right in a fair trial. He later was pardoned along with the reformists and a fifth activist shortly after King Abdullah ascended the throne.

Form for the Other Saudis

I don’t care if Mohammed al-Mussaed, aka Green Tea, and his likes call me a rafidi because the opinion of extremists is not of value to me. Now of course people like him would argue that “rafidi” is not meant as a sectarian slur but merely a description, but to me as well as many others this term has very negative connotations because it has been used for a very long time to degrade the group of Muslims to which I belong. But as I said, I could not care less.

What I care about, though, is how the government treat those so-called “rafida.” I expect our government to treat all citizens with justice and equality. This is what King Abdullah promised this nation, “a land of justice and moderation far removed from hatred and extremism.” And I still vividly remember his first speech as a King when he vowed justice for all.

When I was a young student, I was taught in school that all citizens of Saudi Arabia are Muslims, period. That’s why none of the official forms and papers used for Saudis here contain an item for religion. If you are a Saudi, you are automatically, er naturally, a Muslim. Or at least this is what I thought until I stumbled upon this form:

Form for Saudis

This form bears the logo of the Ministry of Health and it is used by the directorate of health affairs in Ahssa for those who apply for a job at government’s hospitals. The headline in this form clearly states: “Form for Saudis.” However, a few lines underneath that title there is a space where applicants are required to provide their religion and sect. So what’s going on here? Is this form only used in Ahssa or is it used throughout the Kingdom? I don’t know, but I can confirm that this form is not fake because I personally know someone who had to fill it when he applied for a job.

I have heard many people talk about sectarian discrimination at the healthcare sector in my hometown of Ahssa, but as a good citizen I always choose to ignore them and believe the government who insist that they don’t discriminate on sectarian basis. I would like to think that there no such thing as institutionalized discrimination here, but I think there are some individuals who use their power to pass discriminatory practices.

In this era of sectarian strife that is taking the region, it is high time for our nation to eliminate all practices conveying prejudices and for the government to take strong measures to stop discrimination on all levels. It is only with unity and solidarity that we are able to stand and overcome the challenges facing our country. Now let’s put the words into action.

On Justice and Constitution

I was one of the people who have had a chance to meet with a delegation from Human Rights Watch during their fact-finding missions to the country in 2006 and 2008, and therefore I was looking forward to read the results of these visits. HRW released two reports that you can find here and here.

justice_ministry

I have been going through their report on the criminal justice and, as expected, the picture drawn in there is not pretty. The report is highly critical to several government bodies as well as the justice system. The report also notes some steps were taken to reform laws and procedures but says these reforms has been slow and had has had little effect on the rights of defendants. An excerpt:

Saudi Arabia should tackle the fundamental shortcomings of its judicial system by reforming its laws and its criminal procedures, from arrest through imprisonment, to ensure that they comply with international human rights standards. At present, the shortcomings in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system are so pervasive as to leave grave doubt that Saudi courts have established the guilt of sentenced prisoners in a fair trial and that law enforcement officers detain untried defendants on a sound legal basis.

One of the main sources of these shortcomings is the absence of a constitution in which laws and regulation are rooted. The Basic Law, issued in 1992, is dubbed by the report a “proto-constitution” but the problem with this document is that it doesn’t enumerate the rights and duties of citizens. Some critics like Khalid al-Dakhil think The Basic Law is a good start on which we can build to formulate a constitution, while others like Abdullah al-Hamid propose a whole new document that they call the “Islamic Constitution.”

Following the Pardon

The Qatif Girl – and her male friend – have received a pardon from King Abdullah, as I posted yesterday. I have to add that I got the word about two weeks ago from sources close to the matter that the girl would be pardoned, but I decided to withhold that piece of information because I thought the pardon won’t be announced until Eid Al Adha as it is customary for the King to issue a general pardon on similar occasions.

The reactions to the pardon have been mixed. For my part, as the New York Times said, I was relieved that the sentence won’t be carried out, but what I have not said in my earlier post is that I was disturbed by the statements of the minister of justice which came out with the news of the pardon. The minister insisted the pardon was not issued because the sentence was unjust, but simply because it was in the interest of the greater good. These statements made it look as if there was nothing wrong with the brutal sentence and the King decided to pardon the girl because of international pressure. I believe that if the King saw nothing wrong with the trial then he would have let the victim appeal and go with the case to the higher court, and then, after all appeals have been exhausted, he would interfere to spare her the suffering.

However, Abu Joori and others pointed out that this is not the end, because there are other injustices still taking place in the Saudi courts. I agree. The Qatif Girl was lucky to have a supporting husband and a courageous lawyer, something that many others probably don’t have, but the big publicity this case received would contribute to shed more light on the state of the legal system and bootstrap the the reforms announced in October.

This case has caused a tremendous embarrassment to the country, but I don’t think the King pardoned the victims just because he wanted to silence the critics. At the same time that I and others were expressing our relief, the extremists here were lashing out saying the pardon would encourage more people to question the rulings of the courts, a sin in their eyes because they believe judges are holy figures who should not be touched.

Much respect to the brave lawyer Abdul-Rahman Al Lahem for his courage and patience. I still remember when someone called in on a TV show and accused him of taking the case because he was after fame. “I don’t mind becoming famous for doing the right thing,” Al Lahem responded. Much respect to the girl’s husband for standing by his wife like a real man. Thank you to all the people who supported this case on blogs, internet forums and the international media. And finally, a short message to the local media: shame on you for ignoring this case; once again you prove that you are such a waste of time and money.

UPDATE: According to Arab News, the official pardon which was released late Monday night by the king said that the Qatif Girl had been subjected to “a brutal crime”. The pardon continued to say that the pardon was “because the woman and the man who was with her were subject to torture and stubbornness that is considered in itself sufficient in disciplining both of them and to learn from the lesson.” The king also ordered the Ministry of Justice to give the rapists the strictest sentence possible for their crime.