Tuesday, August 24, 2010

 Saudi Legal Reform Put To The Test

A spate of recent religious opinions and court rulings ranging from the bizarre to endorsement of mutilation issued by prominent Saudi sheikhs and judges highlight the difficulties King Abdullah is encountering in clamping down on fatwas and his efforts to reform and codify the kingdom’s largely unwritten Islamic legal regulations that govern the kingdom’s criminal, civil and family courts. To be fair, few, if any, of the more outrageous Saudi legal opinions and rulings have recently been put into practice.

In the latest ruling sparking international concern, Saudi judge Sheikh Saud Al-Yousef this month ordered a man to be paralyzed in retribution for injuries he allegedly caused with a meat cleaver during a fight two years ago. Applying the principle of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ the judge ruled that the man should be injured at the same place on his spinal cord to cause identical crippling damage to what he inflicted on his victim 22-year-old Abdul-Aziz al-Mitairy. The man was originally sentenced to seven months in prison by a court in the northwestern town of Tabuk, but his victim subsequently petitioned the court to impose an equivalent punishment on his attacker in accordance with principle of qisas, retribution, embedded in Islamic law. Past Saudi applications of qisas have involved eye-gouging, tooth extraction, and death in cases involving murder. Two Saudi hospitals, including Riyadh’s prestigious King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, rejected on ethical grounds the judge’s request that they implement his ruling.

In a statement condemning the ruling, Amnesty International said another hospital had advised the judge that it was medically possible to administer to the perpetrator an injury identical to the one that he caused. “Under international human rights law, the use of this sentence would constitute a violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the statement quoted Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Acting Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. Sahraoui suggested the court imprison, fine or flog the condemned man.

In an apparent effort to counter international criticism, the judge and a senior Saudi official attempted to downplay the judge's request. The official told CNN that paralysis was never considered as a punishment in the case. Al Riyadh newspaper quoted the judge as saying that "The proceedings in this case are still pending and no verdict had been issued in that regards." Al-Yousef said the court had queried a number of hospitals and other authorities about surgical paralysis in order to convince the plaintiff about the impossibility of carrying out such a medical procedure."The plaintiff was demanding punishment of the attacker, and the judicial ruling in this case only includes the plaintiff's eligibility for blood money," he said.

Earlier this month, Saudi authorities pulled the plug on the daily radio program of Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, a cleric and royal court adviser who earlier this year earned notoriety by decreeing that women could give men breast milk to avoid illicit gender mixing. Saudi Arabia bans women from mixin with men who are no their guardians defined as their husband or first line relatives such as father or brothers. The decision followed a controversial royal decree by Abdullah authorizing only members of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars to issue fatwas in a bid to put a halt to religious rulings that embarrass the kingdom.

The Tabuk judge ordered the mutilation after Abdullah issued his decree. Among other rulings this year, Sheikh Yousuf Ahmad, a lecturer at the Imam Mohammad bin Saud University in Riyadh, suggested that only Muslim maids could work in Saudi homes. He also called for the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site and the world's largest mosque, to be demolished and rebuilt to ensure segregation between the sexes in the shrine. Saudi clergy are debating women’s right to engage in competitive sports with the kingdom under increased pressure from the International Olympic Committee to ease restrictions.

Abdullah recently won a major victory when the kingdom’s top religious body endorsed his proposed codification of Saudi law needed to meet World Trade Organization and human rights standards, encourage foreign investment, standardize legal practice and grant courts enforcement powers. Lawyers and analysts caution however that codification may take several years given conservative fears that it could undermine Saudi Arabia’s puritan interpretation of Islamic law as well as the independence of judges by making them adhere to written rules and regulations.

Testing the Saudi winds of reform, Suliman al-Reshoudi, a 73-year old former judge imprisoned without trial for the past three years ago on vague allegations related to his legal support of democracy advocates, has opened a court case to force the Interior Ministry and security services to either formally charge or release him. The case, the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, is based on a yet to be tested legal offering protection to detainees introduced after Al-Reshoudi’s arrest in 2007.

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