A court in Saudi Arabia doubled its sentence of lashings for a rape victim who had spoken out in public about her case and her efforts to seek justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The court also harassed her lawyer, banning him from the case and confiscating his professional license.
An official at the General Court of Qatif, which handed down the sentence on November 14, said the court had increased the woman’s sentence because of “her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media.” The court sentenced the rape victim to six months in prison and 200 lashes, more than double its October 2006 sentence after its earlier verdict was reviewed by Saudi Arabia’s highest court, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary.
Human Rights Watch called on King Abdullah to immediately void the verdict and drop all charges against the rape victim and to order the court to end its harassment of her lawyer.
“A courageous young woman faces lashing and prison for speaking out about her efforts to find justice,” said Farida Deif, researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “This verdict not only sends victims of sexual violence the message that they should not press charges, but in effect offers protection and impunity to the perpetrators.”
The young woman, who is married, said she had met with a male acquaintance who had promised to give her back an old photograph of herself. After she met her acquaintance in his car in Qatif, a gang of seven men then attacked and raped both of them, multiple times. Despite the prosecution’s requests for the maximum penalty for the rapists, the Qatif court sentenced four of them to between one and five years in prison and between 80 and 1,000 lashes. They were convicted of kidnapping, apparently because prosecutors could not prove rape. The judges reportedly ignored evidence from a mobile phone video in which the attackers recorded the assault.
Moreover, the court in October 2006 also sentenced both the woman and man who had been raped to 90 lashes each for what it termed “illegal mingling.” Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the criminalization of any contact between unmarried individuals of the opposite sex in Saudi Arabia severely impedes the ability of rape victims to seek justice. A court may view a woman’s charge of rape as an admission of extramarital sexual relations (or “illegal mingling”) unless she can prove, by strict evidentiary standards, that this contact was legal and the intercourse was nonconsensual.
In an interview in December, the rape victim described to Human Rights Watch her treatment in court:
“At the first session, [the judges] said to me, ‘what kind of relationship did you have with this individual? Why did you leave the house? Do you know these men?’ They asked me to describe the situation. They used to yell 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]?’”
“Victims of sexual violence in Saudi Arabia face enormous obstacles in the criminal justice system,” said Deif. “Their interrogations and court hearings are more likely to compound the trauma of the original assault than provide justice.”
During the recent hearings, Judge al-Muhanna of the Qatif court also banned the woman’s lawyer, Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, from the courtroom and from any future representations of her, without apparent reason. He also confiscated his lawyer’s identification card, which the Ministry of Justice issues. Al-Lahim faces a disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Justice on December 5, where sanctions can include suspension for three years and disbarment.
Al-Lahim, who is Saudi Arabia’s best-known human rights lawyer, earlier this year had planned to take legal action against the Ministry of Justice for failing to provide him with a copy of the verdict against his client so that he could prepare an appeal. Despite numerous representations to the court and the ministry, he was not given a copy of the case file or the verdict.
“The decision to ban the rape victim’s lawyer from the case shows what little respect Saudi authorities have for the legal profession or the law in general,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
On October 3, King Abdullah announced a judicial reform, promising new specialized courts and training for judges and lawyers. There is currently no rule of law in Saudi Arabia, which does not have a written penal code. Judges do not follow procedural rules and issue arbitrary sentences that vary widely. Often, judges do not provide written verdicts, even in death penalty cases. Judges sometimes deny individuals their right to legal representation. In May 2006, a judge in Jeddah had thrown a lawyer out of his courtroom in a civil suit on the sole basis that he is of the Isma’ili faith, a branch of Shiism. Trials remain closed to the public.