(Beirut) - Saudi Arabia's authorities should quash the January, 2010, verdict of a court that sentenced a woman to 300 lashes and one and a half years in prison for filing harassment complaints without the required accompaniment by a male guardian, and release her from jail, Human Rights Watch said today.
Sawsan Salim was sentenced on charges of making "spurious complaints" against government officials and for "appearing ... without a male guardian" in court. The verdict reflects the discriminatory system of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia, in which women are prohibited from many acts without the presence of a male guardian.
"In Saudi Arabia, being a woman going about her legitimate business without a man's protection is apparently a crime," said Nadya Khalife, women's rights researcher for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to free Sawsan Salim and keep its promise to end this discriminatory system."
In June 2009, during a review of the country's human rights record, Saudi Arabia accepted a recommendation by the United Nations Human Rights Council to abolish the legal guardianship system. However, the government has taken no steps to carry out its promise.
Under the system, those designated as "male guardians" conduct business on behalf of their female charges regardless of whether the female is an adult or a minor. Women who wish to travel, seek certain types of medical care, work, and conduct everyday business, for example, must still obtain the consent of their male guardians - who could be a husband, father, brother, or even a son who is a minor.
The case stems from 2004 when a court in Rass, in Saudi Arabia's northern Qasim region, jailed Salim's husband, Salih al-Thawwab, in January for failing to pay debts arising from a disputed inheritance. International human rights law prohibits the imprisonment of persons solely for their failure to fulfill contractual obligations, such as paying debts. The Rass court later released al-Thawwab after he claimed bankruptcy.
While her husband was in prison in 2004, Salim sought the help of a local judge, Habib Abdullah al-Asqa of the Buraida court, to gain her husband's release. In a letter Salim addressed to King Abdullah bin Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa'ud, she said that al-Asqa told her: "I'm better than [your husband]. He has nothing," and offered to divorce her from al-Thawwab. Salim also said that after al-Thawwab's release, al-Asqa told her "I will give [your husband] three months to pay his debt and if he doesn't, I will return him to jail because you refused my offer to divorce him."
Salim's lawyer, Mikhlif Dahham al-Shammari, said that al-Asqa continued to harass her and to give her a difficult time with her business affairs. She complained in writing to the interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa'ud, about what she saw as the judge's inappropriate behavior.
Al-Shammari said that Salim was also harassed by other Rass officials. He said that on numerous occasions prior to February 2008, the Rass police manager, Salih Sulaiman al-Khalifa; the Rass passport office manager, Abd al-‘Aziz Abdullah al-Khalifa; and Governor Khalid al-‘Assaf, chided Salim for not being accompanied by a male guardian during her visits to their offices. At the time, she had disagreements with her husband and did not wish for him to act as her guardian.
Al-Shammari said the Rass officials disregarded her explanation that as a naturalized Saudi citizen of Sudanese origin, she had no male family members in the kingdom who could act as her guardian.
On February 14, 2008, Salim again wrote to Prince Nayef about the way public officials had allegedly mistreated her on the grounds that she addressed them without a male guardian. Sulaiman al-Mahwis, a retired judge at the Rass court, helped her prepare and submit her complaint.
In response, on February 25, Salim received a summons to meet with the court investigator, Judge Salman Muhammad al-Nushwan. She went to court, but asked if she could come back the next day because she did not have all of her documents with her. Al-Nushwan refused this request, taking notes. When Salim asked to see what he was writing, al-Nushwan also refused, and when she tried to take the paper, it tore. Al-Nushwan then angrily ordered her to leave the courthouse, Salim said in the letter to King Abdullah.
On April 8, 2008, she wrote a letter to King Abdullah bin Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa'ud, complaining about her encounter with al-Asqa in 2004, her subsequent harassment at the hands of local officials, and her encounter with al-Nushwan.
Judges al-Nushwan and al-Asqa then filed a criminal complaint against Salim, accusing her of making 118 spurious complaints during 2007 (1428 hijri, the Islamic calendar) against government officials and of appearing before government offices without a male guardian. They also filed a complaint against the retired judge who "she went to for help in writing these complaints," according to the charge sheet.
The complaint went to the president of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, Salih Muhammad al-Luhaidan. The Supreme Council of the Judiciary appointed two Buraida court judges, al-Asqa and Ibrahim Abdullah, to try the case in the Rass court, despite the fact that al-Asqa was one of the plaintiffs.
The trial opened on December 27, 2009. Retired Judge al-Mahwis was listed as a co-defendant. The prosecutor claimed he "incited" against the "shaikhs [judges] of Rass court" because he had been fired as a judge there, although he is listed as a "retired" judge.
During the trial that day, Salim argued with the judges outside the courtroom, prompting the police to take her into custody. She is being held, together with her infant child, at Buraida central prison, 60 kilometers from her home in Rass. On January 25, 2010, she was found guilty of "making spurious complaints against government officials" and "visiting government offices without a male guardian." The court sentenced her to one and a half years in prison and 300 lashes. The prosecutor had asked the authorities to strip her of her acquired Saudi nationality and to deport her.
Al-Mahwis was found guilty of charges of helping to write "spurious complaints" and sentenced to 120 lashes and ten months in prison, al-Shammari said. Al-Sahmmari has written to King Abdullah to seek a pardon for Salim and al-Mahwis.
"Seeking justice is a risky business in Saudi Arabia," said Christoph Wilcke, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. "Even retired judges can be sentenced to lashes for helping others access the courts."
Saudi Arabia has no penal code that sets out a catalogue of actions deemed criminal and that defines them. Judges have wide discretion to treat any act they deem inappropriate as a crime and to sentence the perpetrator to any punishment they see fit.
Human Rights Watch said that the verdict against Salim is based on the discriminatory system of guardianship, the verdict against al-Mahwis is on the basis of his assistance to her, and that both verdicts should be quashed. The sentences of prison time and lashes should be cancelled, and both prisoners should immediately be freed, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch opposes corporal punishment in all circumstances as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.