Rape victim’s harsh sentence shocks Saudis

November 17, 2007 at 4:26 am (articals on sexual assault)

sydney morning hereld
Rasheed Abou-Alsamh in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
November 17, 2007

A SAUDI court has more than doubled the number of lashes that a female rape victim was sentenced to last year after her lawyer appealed against the original sentence. The decision, which many lawyers found shocking even by Saudi standards of justice, has provoked a rare public debate about the treatment of women.

The victim’s lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Lahem, a human rights activist, drew the court’s ire because of his strong public criticism of the handling of the case. He has called his client’s conviction unjust and said the sentences of the seven men who raped her were too lenient.

He is also known for his past defence of critics of the monarchy.

The victim, who was 19 at the time and whose name has not been released, was raped about 18 months ago in Qatif, a city in the Eastern Province.

Her case has been widely debated since the court sentenced her to 90 lashes a year ago for being in the same car as an unrelated man, even after it ruled she had subsequently been raped. For a woman to be alone with a man who is not her husband or a relative is a crime in Saudi Arabia, whose legal code is based on a strict Wahabi interpretation of Islamic law.

Adding to the charged political nature of the case, the victim is a member of the kingdom’s Shiite Muslim minority.

Mr Lahem’s licence to practice law has been suspended and he is facing a hearing before a Ministry of Justice disciplinary committee on December 5 in Riyadh for appearing regularly on television and talking about the case.

Judges of the Qatif General Court have accused him of trying to tarnish the court’s image by talking to the media.

The woman’s offence was meeting a former boyfriend, who she had asked to return pictures he had of her because she was about to marry another man. The couple were sitting in a car when a group of seven men kidnapped them and raped them both, lawyers in the case told the Arab News.

The woman and the former boyfriend were originally sentenced to 90 lashes each for being together in private. The attackers received sentences ranging from 10 months to five years in prison, and 80 to 1000 lashes each.

Mr Lahem appealed against the attackers’ sentences, saying they were too lenient and that the treatment of the victim was too harsh. In its decision issued on Tuesday, the court increased the victim’s sentence to 200 lashes and six months in jail. It also increased the sentences of her attackers to prison terms of two to nine years. The woman remains free for the time being and has not yet been lashed.

“I don’t agree with this judgment,” Bassem Alim, a lawyer in Jeddah, said of the woman’s sentence. “I think it’s overly severe. She should not be punished for going to the media and explaining her case.” Dr Alim, a friend of the victim’s lawyer, said the standard punishment for adultery was 60 to 80 lashes, so the sentence was unusually harsh, even for Saudi Arabia.

Abeer Mishkhas, a columnist who writes frequently about women’s rights, wrote in Arab News that the woman seemed to have been singled out for particularly draconian treatment.

King Abdullah last month approved new laws regulating the judicial system, which rules on the basis of sharia, or Islamic law.

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