Rape case has Saudis asking questions about legal system

Rape case has Saudis asking questions about legal systemWoman who says she was raped faces punishment

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

By DONNA ABU-NASR
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

AL-AWWAMIYA, Saudi Arabia — When the young woman went to the police a few months ago to report that she was gang-raped by seven men, she never imagined that the judge would punish her — and that she would be sentenced to more lashes than one of her rapists received.

The story of the Girl of Qatif, as the alleged rape victim has been called by the media here, has triggered a rare debate about Saudi Arabia’s legal system, in which judges have wide discretion in punishing a criminal, rules of evidence are shaky and sometimes no defense lawyers are present.

The result, critics say, are sentences left to the whim of judges. These include one in which a group of men got heavier sentences for harassing women than the men in the Girl of Qatif rape case or three men who were convicted of raping a boy. In another, a woman was ordered to divorce her husband against her will based on a demand by her relatives.

In the case of the Girl of Qatif, she was sentenced to 90 lashes for being alone in a car with a man to whom she was not married — a crime in this strictly segregated country — at the time that she was allegedly attacked and raped by a group of other men.

In the sleepy, Shiite village of al-Awwamiya on the outskirts of the eastern city of Qatif, the 19-year-old is struggling to forget the spring night that changed her life. An Associated Press reporter met her in a face-to-face interview. She spoke on condition of anonymity.

Her hands tremble, her dark brown eyes are lifeless. Her sleep is interrupted by a replay of the events, which she describes in a whisper.

That night, she said, she had left home to retrieve her picture from a male high school student she used to know. She had just been married — but had not moved in with her husband — and did not want her picture to remain with the student.

While the woman was in the car with the student, she said, two men intercepted them, got into the vehicle and drove the couple to a secluded area where the two were separated. She said she was raped by seven men, three of whom also allegedly raped her friend.

In a trial that ended this month — in which the prosecutor asked for the death penalty for the seven men — four of the men received one to five years in prison plus 80 to 1,000 lashes, the woman said. Three others are awaiting sentencing. Neither the defendants nor the plaintiffs retained lawyers, as is common here.

“The big shock came when the judge sentenced me and the man to 90 lashes each,” the woman said.

The sentences have yet to be carried out, but the punishments ordered have caused an uproar.

Justice in Saudi Arabia is administered by a system of religious courts according to the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia. Judges — who are appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council — have complete discretion to set sentences, except in cases where Sharia outlines a punishment.

Saudis are urging the Justice Ministry to clarify the logic behind some rulings. In one recent case, three men convicted of raping a 12-year-old boy received sentences of one to two years in prison and 300 lashes each. In contrast, another judge sentenced at least four men to six to 12 years imprisonment for fondling women in a tunnel in Riyadh.

Saleh al-Shehy, a columnist for Al-Watan, asked Justice Minister Abdullah Al-Sheik to explain why the boy’s rapists got a lighter sentence than the men in last year’s sexual harassment case.

“I won’t ask you my brother, the minister, if you find the ruling satisfactory or not,” wrote al-Shehy. “I will ask you, ‘Do you think it satisfies God?’ “

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