Monday, December 17, 2007
Justice and Truth: Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has pardoned the victim of a gang rape, whose sentencing to 200 lashes caused an international outcry.
Justice Minister Abdullah bin Mohammad al-Sheikh said the king had the right to issue pardons if it was in the "public interest". The Saudi monarch usually issues pardons to mark the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival which begins on Wednesday this week.
The 19-year-old Shi'ite woman was abducted and raped along with a male companion by seven men last year in a case that has drawn criticism from around the world.
Ruling according to Saudi Arabia's strict reading of Islamic law, a court originally sentenced the woman to 90 lashes for being alone with an unrelated man and the rapists to prison terms of up to five years.
The Supreme Judicial Council last month increased the sentence to 200 lashes for the woman and six months in prison and ordered the rapists to serve between two years and nine years in prison.
President George W. Bush said earlier this month that King Abdullah "knows our position loud and clear" on the case, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said last month he hoped the ruling would be changed.
Fawziya al-Oyouni, a women's rights activist, welcomed the change but said it was not enough.
"We don't want to rely simply on pardons. We need harsher sentences for the guilty parties and we want to feel safe," she said, citing another rape case in the Eastern Province this month.
Is this a sign that rape victims in Saudi Arabia might finally be treated equitably? Maybe. Give it time and the truth will eventually shine like a beacon of light to the rest of the Middle East.
She was only 19 and a new bride when it happened.
Seven men held her at knifepoint and, for a number of hours, she was subjected to a horrific gang rape.
But when she later went to the authorities, they sentenced her to 90 lashes.
She complained in the media, so the punishment was increased to 200 lashes and imprisonment.
Her lawyer has been suspended for speaking out against it.
Too outlandish to be true? Well, these are the bare facts of the so- called "Qatif girl" case, which has become a cause celebre among Western liberals and in Saudi Arabia, the West's most important Middle Eastern ally.
Earlier this week, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, declared that what had happened was, indeed, an "outrage".
But he did not mean that the rape victim had suffered a gross injustice.
No, only that criticism of his country was a foreign conspiracy.
The plight of the anonymous victim has served to cast an embarrassing light on one of the world's most authoritarian and oppressive regimes.
Specifically, it has exposed the power of a judicial system based on the Sharia law of the extreme Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam and its appalling treatment of women and persecution of religious minorities.
International pressure to clear the young woman is growing.
Now, as one Saudi judge who might well hear her latest appeal declares that she should have been sentenced to death, the victim's voice has been heard in public for the first time.
The pressure group Human Rights Watch has just released a transcript of an interview which the Qatif girl gave to one of its workers.
Her account reveals the horrific details of the original ordeal and how, having gone to the police, she was abused and demonised by the Saudi judicial system.
The attack took place in February last year and had its roots in a typical Saudi teenage arrangement which in the West would seem odd, but is a way of getting round the strict Islamic sex segregation laws.
Forbidden from approaching young women directly, young men make contact by publicly displaying their own mobile phone numbers on cards as they pass in the street or by dropping the cards through open car windows.
Others make contact using their phone's Bluetooth technology, which allows users to send messages to nearby mobile phones without knowing the telephone number.
"I had a relationship with someone on the phone," recalled the Qatif girl.
"It started when we were both 16. I had never seen him before, I just knew his voice. Then he started to threaten me and I got afraid.
"He threatened to tell my family about the relationship. Because of the threats and fear, I agreed to give him a photo of myself."
But when the girl wed another young man she became worried about the photo she had given to her "ex-boyfriend".
"I asked him for the photo back but he refused. He said: 'I'll give you the photo on the condition that you come out with me in my car.'
"I told him we could meet at a souk [market] near my neighbourhood in Qatif."
She recalled: "He started to drive me home, and when were about to turn the corner to my house, another car stopped right in front of our car.
"Two people got out of their car and stood on either side of our car. The man on my side had a knife.
"They tried to open our door. I told the individual with me not to open the door, but he did. He let them come in. I screamed."
The ordeal had begun.
"One of the men brought a knife to my throat. They told me not to speak. They pushed both of us to the back of the car and started driving. We drove a lot, but I didn't see anything since my head was forced down.
"They took us to an area with lots of palm trees. No one was there. If you kill someone there, no one would know about it."
First, they took the girl's male companion from the car.
He was the victim of homosexual rape a number of times during the course of the evening.
"I was so afraid," the girl said.
"Then they forced me out of the car. They pushed me really hard. I yelled out: 'Where are you taking me? I'm like your sister.'"
They took her to a building. Then two men came in and stripped her.
"The first man with the knife raped me. I was destroyed. I tried to force them off but I couldn't. Another man came in and did the same thing to me. I didn't even feel anything after that."
For two hours the girl begged the two men to take her home.
"I told them that it was late and that my family would be asking about me.
Then I saw a third man come into the room. There was a lot of violence.
After the third man came in, a fourth came. He slapped me and tried to choke me.
"The fifth and sixth ones were the most abusive. The fifth one took a photo of me like this. After the seventh one, I couldn't feel my body any more. I didn't know what to do. When a very fat man was on top of me I could no longer breathe."
Before she was eventually taken home by the gang, she was raped again by all seven attackers.
"They took my mobile and saw my husband's picture in my wallet.
"When I got out of the car [at her home], I couldn't even walk. I rang the doorbell and my mother opened the door. She said: 'You look tired.'
"She thought I was with my husband.
"I went to the hospital the next day. I didn't eat for one week after that, just drank water. I didn't tell anyone, but I would see the rapists faces in my sleep."
However, the story began to leak out.
"The criminals started talking about it in my neighbourhood. They thought my husband would divorce me. They wanted to ruin my reputation. Slowly, my husband started to know what had happened."
But he stood by her, outraged at what the men had done and the fact they were going unpunished.
"Two of the criminals were walking round our neighbourhood, right in front of me," her husband said.
He complained to the police on four occasions before anything was done.
Human rights activists are sure the authorities' reluctance to investigate and their subsequent actions have much to do with the fact that the woman was from Saudi's Shi'ite minority, while the accused are from the majority Sunni Muslims.
When her attackers were finally called to account, the girl had to go to court, where she received a hostile reception.
"At the first session, the judges said to me: 'What kind of relationship did you have with this individual [the man she originally agreed to meet]? Why did you leave the house? Do you know these men?'
"They asked me to describe the situation. They yelled at me. They were insulting. The judge refused to allow my husband in the room with me.
"One judge told me I was a liar because I didn't remember the dates well. They kept saying: 'Why did you leave the house? Why didn't you tell your husband where you were going?'"
The second session, in October last year, proved to be even more shocking.
Four of the attackers - the three others were not found - were given sentences of between one and five years and between 80 and 1,000 lashes.
They were convicted only of kidnapping because the prosecution could not prove rape even though the video images taken on the mobile phone during the attack were presented to the judges.
"I thought these people shouldn't even live," said their victim.
"I thought they would get a minimum of 20 years."
Then the senior judge turned to her and her male companion on the night of the gang rape.
"He said: 'You get 90 lashes. You should thank God you're not in prison.'
"I asked him why and he said: "You know why. Because mingling begets evil.' "
She had been convicted under the khalwa - Sharia law which forbids any woman from being alone in the company of a male to whom she is not related.
"Don't you have any dignity?" her husband demanded of the judges. It was no good. And worse was to follow. The girl grew suicidal. Her own brother blamed her for the attack and his family's "shame".
"He hit me and tried to kill me," she said.
But she was not prepared to accept her unjust punishment.
With the backing of the leading Saudi human rights lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Laham, she made the facts public, even giving an interview to an Arab TV channel. But far from embarrassing the authorities, this merely seemed to enrage them.
On November 14, the General Court of Qatif struck back, increasing her sentence to 200 lashes and six months in prison.
(Flogging is usually carried out in batches by a prison official who has to hold a copy of the Koran under his whip arm, which prevents it from being raised very high).
The rapists' sentences were also increased to between two and 11 years each.
An official at the court said that her sentence was raised because of "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media".
Judge Sa'd al-Muhanna also banned her lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Laham, from the courtroom and from representing her in future for allegedly raising his voice in court.
His licence to practise has been suspended and his passport seized.
He faces a further hearing before a Ministry of Justice disciplinary committee in Riyadh next week for appearing regularly on television and talking about the case.
Overnight, though, the Qatif girl's case became a matter of international interest.
How on earth could the Saudi authorities justify such behaviour?
US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton became involved. But far from retreating, the Saudi authorities dug their heels in.
Official statements posted on the Ministry of Justice website in the past fortnight have alleged that the girl admitted adultery and was already undressed in the car when she was attacked by the rapists.
One statement went so far as to say that it was her own fault: "The main reason the crime took place was because the woman and her companion, who exposed her to this heinous crime, did not follow the law."
The ministry chastised the media for providing an "unjustified defence" of the woman.
A representative of the ministry also appeared on television blaming her for the attack.
He strongly hinted that she had engaged in adultery.
Earlier this week a Saudi newspaper published an interview with Judge Dr Ibrahim bin Salih al-Khudairi of the Riyadh Appeals Court, in which he said that he would have sentenced her to death.
The Appeals Court, and possibly Judge al-Khudairi, will consider the appeal that the Qatif girl said she intends to file.
"How is this woman going to get a fair hearing?" asks Farida Deif, of Human Rights Watch.
"The Ministry of Justice has been highly defamatory of her and suggestive that she committed adultery and it was, therefore, her own fault.
"Yes, she broke the law on mingling, but the court should have shown some discretion given that she was brutally gang-raped.
"But this is a country with no written penal law, in which the judges are religious scholars with very little formal legal training."
Thanks to the internet and satellite television however, the Qatif girl's case has caused many Saudis to question the fairness of their own judicial system.
Legal reforms have been announced recently.
But life in the kingdom is still dominated by the religious police who work for the Commission For The Propagation Of Virtue And The Prevention Of Vice to enforce a strict Islamic lifestyle.
They are the untouchables.
Indeed, only on Thursday it was reported that charges against two religious policemen had been dropped. They had been investigated following the death of a man in custody.
The man had been arrested for allegedly drinking alcohol and there was evidence that he had been kicked in the head - but not sufficient to pursue the case, a judge decided.
It echoes a similar case in the summer in which three other members of the religious police had charges dropped after the death of another suspect in custody.
The victim's alleged crime was, like that of the Qatif girl, being alone with an unrelated member of the opposite sex.
The Saudi foreign minister has said that the judicial system will review the Qatif girl's case.
In the meantime, as she awaits her fate, she remains under virtual house arrest, unable to communicate with the outside world; her traumatised family's phones are tapped by the religious police and they are followed when they leave the house.
Meanwhile, the girl is still tormented by thoughts of suicide. But then, in the medieval world of Saudi law she has only herself to blame.
International Women's Day