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After a Saudi court forced a married couple to divorce in response to a lawsuit brought by the wife’s brothers, officials placed the woman and her young son in detention and are threatening to detain her husband, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi authorities to unconditionally release Fatima `Azzaz and her son, and to end the harassment of her husband, Mansur Timani.

In August 2005, a court in the northern city of Juf forcibly divorced the lawfully married couple in absentia. The court ruled that Timani’s tribal lineage was socially inadequate for him to marry `Azzaz, essentially declaring that the marriage could harm the reputation of `Azzaz’s family since Timani is of a lower social class. The Riyadh Court of Appeals in January upheld the verdict, ending judicial appeals. Human Rights Watch called on King Abdullah to refer the case to the Supreme Council for the Judiciary to correct the unjust decision.

“Saudi courts responsible for protecting families and children instead have torn apart a married couple and their children,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government must rectify this travesty and end harmful lawsuits brought by a woman’s male family members.”

Officials in the governorate of the Eastern Province, who answer to the Ministry of Interior, have harassed and persecuted the couple since the ruling, and have enforced their complete separation. In August, governorate officials detained `Azzaz and her two children in Dammam Public Prison because of her unwillingness to return to her half-brothers, whom she fears because of violence directed against her and a history of family disputes. In April, she transferred to another detention center in Dammam under administration of the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Earlier this year, Timani received custody of the older daughter when she reached age two. Fatima `Azzaz is prohibited from going out or receiving visitors, including her daughter, female friends and members of the National Society for Human Rights who are investigating her case. Officials prevent her from speaking by telephone with her daughter, husband or others. Human Rights Watch called on King Abdullah to lift all restrictions on consensual visits between the couple and with their children.

Compounding the violations caused by the court’s decision is the government’s strict enforcement of male legal guardianship over women, which has led to `Azzaz’s detention. Saudi women must obtain a male legal guardian’s permission to work, travel, study, marry, receive healthcare or access to many public services. Without such permission, government agencies can bar women from exercising these rights. Women’s legal guardians include their husbands, fathers, brothers and even male children. Human Rights Watch urged King Abdullah to review the conditions of legal guardianship that prevent women from exercising their basic rights.

Following the forced divorce, `Azzaz’s half-brothers became her legal guardians, and she must remain in their custody. Her only alternative is to remain in a detention facility under the care of the government. `Azzaz’s half-brothers initiated the lawsuit seeking her divorce from Timani after the death of her father, who had consented to the marriage.

More recently, officials have stepped up their harassment of Timani. On July 9, when Timani attempted to register his car at the governorate’s traffic office, officials denied his request, saying the computer showed he was “wanted for security reasons.” In mid-June, agents of the Saudi criminal investigation police took Timani, along with his and `Azzaz’s three-year-old daughter to a police station in al-Khobar in the Eastern Province and ordered him to sign a pledge not to speak to anyone about the case of his forced divorce from his wife or face prison. Timani told Human Rights Watch that he signed the pledge because there was no one else to care for his daughter.

Critics have argued that the court’s ruling has no basis in Islamic law. An online petition to reunite the couple and prevent future cases of forced divorce has received more than 1,000 signatures, many from Saudi Arabia.

“A woman and her son are being held prisoner because of discriminatory male guardianship laws,” said Whitson. “Her husband faces the threat of imprisonment and of having to abandon their daughter. The litany of human rights violations that this case involves is indefensible, and the Saudi government must provide immediate redress.”

Saudi Arabia is a party to both the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The court’s decision and state’s actions violate several of the basic protections and rights guaranteed under both instruments. The court’s ruling is also a violation of the right of consenting adults to marry, without discrimination, which is recognized under international human rights law.

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