(New York) - Saudi Arabia's appointed Shura Council has approved establishing a public defender program, a step that will strengthen the criminal justice system, Human Rights Watch said today. The program approved by the council on January 11, 2010 will appoint a lawyer at the state's expense to any criminal defendant who cannot afford one.
"Providing access to defense lawyers who will be present at criminal trials has the potential to transform Saudi criminal trials from matters of personal judicial opinion into questions of law and fact," said Christoph Wilcke, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "Providing free legal services to indigent defendants is a milestone for the Saudi justice system."
Violations of defendants' rights are systemic in Saudi Arabia, including arrests without warrants; ill-treatment during interrogation; prolonged incommunicado detention; no-notice trial sessions and verdicts; long delays in trials; and obstacles to challenging the evidence against a defendant.
Judges regularly use intimidation to discourage defendants from hiring lawyers, and, on occasion, they ban lawyers from representing their clients in the courtroom. The new program is expected to reduce such instances by making clear that the government supports legal representation for criminal defendants.
On January 9, Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court ordered a retrial of Mohammed Kohail, a Canadian who had been sentenced to death over the accidental death of a Syrian man in a schoolyard brawl. The judge of the Jeddah court that condemned Kohail to death had prevented his lawyer from appearing to defend his client during proceedings and had not allowed the defense to present evidence at trial.
On November 9, 2009, a court in Medina sentenced Ali Sibat, a Lebanese Shi'a, to death for sorcery, based on Sibat's prior work in Lebanon as a fortune teller on a satellite TV station. Sibat had no lawyer.
In another important move, to restrict the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, the Shura Council voted to maintain the requirement of a unanimous decision among the five-judge panel at the appeals court for all death sentences issued on a "discretionary basis." The Shura Council Committee for the Judiciary, Islamic Affairs, and Human Rights, had recommended reducing the requirement to a majority vote.
Saudi Arabia has no penal code, and judges can issue death sentences in three types of cases: offenses against God (hudud), including apostasy, offenses against persons, such as murder and rape, both of which are defined under Shari'a, or Islamic law, or on a "discretionary basis" for any act that a judge considers merits the death penalty, even where those acts are not defined as criminal offenses.
"Saudi Arabia's lawmakers in the Shura Council should now draft a penal code, so that criminal offenses are defined as a matter of written law, not individual opinion," Wilcke said.
In March 2008, Human Rights Watch published a 144-page report, Precarious Justice, detailing deficiencies in the Saudi criminal justice system. The report recommended that Saudi Arabia establish a free public defender program and write a penal code.