Pop culture, funny lawyer, summer festivals

  • Saudi Dawn aka the Eternal Philosopher thinks Saudis are brainwashed with a certain pop culture that “is filled with half-truths and out of context religious information that is promoted to control the masses.” I agree.
  • Lawyer Ahmad Al-Rashid said he will sue Riyadh’s summary court after it refused to consider his lawsuit against MBC for what he called “encouraging deviant behavior in Saudi society.” The court told him to contact the Ministry of Culture and Information’s media violations committee, but he said he won’t. Funny. As a lawyer he should be well aware of this. Citing the example of Mazen Abdul Jawad case doesn’t make much sense here. That case was against Abdul Jawad not LBC, although the channel later got punished for operating without a permission (which is also funny because none of the other non-Saudi channels working in the Kingdom have such permission).
  • Lou K has another good post. This time about so-called Saudi tourism and its so-called summer festivals. “Basically, our summer festivals are nothing but shopping festivals.. There’s nothing more to it..” he says. There is a lot of truth in what he says, but there are also exceptions. The local summer festival here in Al-Ahsa, known as Hasana Falla, tries to mix culture (folklore, arts, traditional crafts, etc.) with entertainment and some shopping. I made a short visit last night to the event, ironically to meet some American visitors, and I thought it was okay. In the words of a Hassawi girl on Twitter, it’s “not half-bad, but nothing much to do.”
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The Onaiza Girl, Again

The Onaiza girl case is back to make headlines after the court there upheld its earlier verdict. Judge Habib Al-Habib’s original stipulated that the girl must reach the age of puberty before determining whether she would continue her marriage solemnized in June 2007. A relative of the girl told CNN that the judge “insisted that the girl could petition the court for a divorce once she reached puberty.” The Court of Cassation had rejected the previous verdict and demanded that the case be reconsidered. But in Saturday’s hearing the judge stuck to his earlier verdict, after he failed to convince the husband to nullify the marriage contract in lieu of returning the dowry he paid.

I don’t understand the position of the judge. So he wanted the husband to nullify the marriage, but when the husband refused, he decided to stick to his earlier bizarre verdict? Anyways, I’m not surprised, especially when we remember that the Grand Mufti himself sees nothing wrong in marrying off girls who are 15 and younger. Sources told Saudi Gazette that if the elderly husband continues to refuse and the judge sticks to his verdict, the Court of Cassation will hand over the case to another judge. Let’s wait and see…

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Injustice

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.

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Court of Embarrassment

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.

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.

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.