Human Rights Voices

While the UN devotes its human rights operations to the demonization of the democratic state of Israel above all others and condemns the United States more often than the vast majority of non-democracies around the world, the voices of real victims around the world must be heard.

Saudi Arabia, December 17, 2007

Relief and Dismay in Saudi Rape-Victim Case

Original source

The New York Times

"Advisors to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia may have thought that pardoning "the girl from Qatif" would quiet critics at home and abroad who were outraged by the way she was treated by the fundamentalist-Islamic Saudi justice system. But from many quarters, the pardon, reported in a Saudi newspaper on Monday, seems to be renewing the criticism and calls for reform.

A bit of back story: This is the now-notorious case of a 19-year-old woman, recently married, who, having been seen sitting in a car with a man to whom she was not related, was abducted and repeatedly raped by seven men. The assailants were prosecuted (for kidnapping, not rape), but so was the woman, known publicly only as the Girl From Qatif, and the man she was with, for the Saudi crime of "illegal mingling." And the two victims got a harsher sentence than some of the assailants initially did: 90 lashes and several months in prison. When she appealed and the case began to attract international attention, the sentence was increased to 200 lashes, and the court suspended her attorney's license to practice law.

Many people around the world object strenuously to the way women are treated in Saudi law and society in general, but this case was extraordinary even in that context, bringing down a storm of international condemnation on the country. Even President Bush, who rarely has anything bad to say about an important ally whose ruling family have been close friends of the Bushes for decades, weighed in on the Girl From Qatif, calling the verdict and sentence "outrageous."

The pardon of the woman, which was reported in the newspaper, Al Jazirah, but has not yet been confirmed by the government, is being met with some predictable relief that the sentence will not be carried out. Ahmed Al-Omran, a Riyadh university student and blogger who has written often about the case, expressed some satisfaction that "justice and common sense have prevailed."

But the reaction was more mixed among those posting comments on his blog, who questioned the government's motives and asked whether a pardon would change anything beyond the one case. "I don't see as a very positive thing," a commenter using the screen name Abujoori wrote:

The reason? Just because there are many other injustice that takes place in our courts and the main reason, I believe, for the royal pardon in this case is the huge publicity it got. What about others who do not get the ability to make a public case of their problems in the court rooms, do not they deserve a look that create a better process for everyone in the country to get their rights!

Other reactions have included dismay that the king insisted as he issued the pardon that the courts were not wrong to convict and sentence the girl, and that the king has not moved faster to reform and modernize Saudi justice. As Hannah Allam of the McClatchy newspaper chain noted on her blog Middle East Diary: The Girl of Qatif's pardon included no plans to address the laundry list of other alleged inequalities that human rights activists have uncovered in the Saudi court system.

The huge latitude judges have is one of the issues, Ms. Allam noted, saying that about all that Saudi judges have to go by in sentencing offenders is the Koran:

Interpretations can vary widely from judge to judge. As a result, there are no uniform sentencing guidelines, so a robber in one city can get 50 lashes while a robber in another city could get 20 years in prison for the same offense.

The BBC, which noted in November that the sentences handed down in the Qatif case had wide support in Saudi Arabia, reported Monday that conservatives in the country were lashing out today against the pardon, saying that leniency to the woman would undermine public morality.

(The rapists' sentences were lengthened on appeal as well, and one Saudi appeals court judge reportedly said he thought all involved, rapists and victims alike, should be put to death.) If nothing else, the case has opened up a rare debate in the country over its justice system.

An American blogger who identifies himself as Dr. X, a clinical psychologist, took note of another dimension of the story: Though the woman and her lawyer were pardoned, according to Al Jazirah's report, there seemed to be no word of any pardon for the man who was abducted, raped, and then prosecuted along with the Girl From Qatif. As Dr. X put it:

While the female victim's sentence ignited a storm of criticism in the West, liberal Westerners who are more interested in identity politics than justice were utterly indifferent toward the Saudi judge's punishment of the male rape victim. This isn't the least bit surprising. Political identities always seem to carry the disease of convenient moral indifference in service of political ideology and agenda. For many liberals, woman-as-victim rather than freedom and justice-for-all serves as the basic interpretive template for the Qatif story.

Or it may have to do with the less than wholly innocent role the man seems to have played in the events that fateful day in Qatif, according to Arabnews:

According to her husband and her lawyer, the rape victim had met the male friend to receive some photos of her that he had from a relationship with her when she was 16. She contends that the man had initially threatened to distribute the pictures to shame her.

He wasn't prosecuted for being a cad, of course, but you'd think it wouldn't have helped him either in the appeals court or the court of public opinion."