Hasan Jamali  /  AP
Unidentified Saudi women walk in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in this Nov. 15 photo. The kingdom's judicial system, particularly the wide latitude judges have in sentencing criminals, has come under scrutiny after the gang rape of a 19-year-old woman and her male friend.
updated 11/21/2006 6:19:04 PM ET 2006-11-21T23:19:04

When the teenager went to the police a few months ago to report she was gang-raped by seven men, she never imagined the judge would punish her — and that she would be sentenced to more lashes than one of her alleged rapists received.

The story of the Girl of Qatif, as the alleged rape victim has been called by the media here, has triggered a rare debate about Saudi Arabia’s legal system, in which judges have wide discretion in punishing a criminal, rules of evidence are shaky and sometimes no defense lawyers are present.

The result, critics say, are sentences left to the whim of judges. These include one in which a group of men got heavier sentences for harassing women than the men in the Girl of Qatif rape case or three men who were convicted of raping a boy. In another, a woman was ordered to divorce her husband against her will based on a demand by her relatives.

In the case of the Girl of Qatif, she was sentenced to 90 lashes for being alone in a car with a man to whom she was not married — a crime in this strictly segregated country — at the time that she was allegedly attacked and raped by a group of other men.

Struggling to forget
In the sleepy, Shiite village of al-Awwamiya on the outskirts of the eastern city of Qatif, the 19-year-old is struggling to forget the spring night that changed her life. An Associated Press reporter met her in a face-to-face interview. She spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her privacy; the AP does not identify rape victims unless they ask to be named.

Her hands tremble, her dark brown eyes are lifeless. Her sleep is interrupted by a replay of the events, which she describes in a barely audible whisper.

That night, she said, she had left home to retrieve her picture from a male high school student she used to know. She had just been married — but had not moved in with her husband — and did not want her picture to remain with the student.

While the woman was in the car with the student, she said, two men intercepted them, got into the vehicle and drove the couple to a secluded area where the two were separated. She said she was raped by seven men, three of whom also allegedly raped her friend.

Lashes for the victim
In a trial that ended in November — in which the prosecutor asked for the death penalty for the seven men — four of the men received between one and five years in prison plus 80 to 1,000 lashes, said the woman. Three others are awaiting sentencing. Neither the defendants nor the plaintiffs retained lawyers, as is common here.

“The big shock came when the judge sentenced me and the man to 90 lashes each,” said the woman. The sentence was handed down as part of the rape trial. Lashes are usually spread over several days, dealt around 50 at a time.

The sentences have yet to be carried out, but the punishments ordered have caused an uproar.

“Because I could make no sense (of the sentence) and became in dire need of patience, I muttered after I read the verdict against the Girl of Qatif: ‘My heart is with you,”’ wrote Fatima al-Faqeeh in a column in Al-Watan newspaper.

Sharia law at issue
Justice in Saudi Arabia is administered by a system of religious courts according to the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. Judges — appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council — have complete discretion to set sentences, except in cases where Sharia outlines a punishment, such as capital crimes.

That means no two judges would likely hand down the same verdict for similar crimes. A rapist, for instance, could receive anywhere from a light or no sentence to death, depending on the judge.

Saudis are urging the Justice Ministry to clarify the logic behind some rulings. In one recent case, three men convicted of raping a 12-year-old boy received sentences of between one and two years in prison and 300 lashes each. In contrast, another judge sentenced at least four men to between six and 12 years imprisonment for fondling women in a tunnel in Riyadh.

Saleh al-Shehy, a columnist for Al-Watan, asked Justice Minister Abdullah Al-Sheik to explain why the boy’s rapists got a lighter sentence than the men in last year’s sexual harassment case.

‘Do you think it satisfies God?’
“I won’t ask you my brother, the minister, if you find the ruling satisfactory or not,” wrote al-Shehy. “I will ask you, ‘Do you think it satisfies God?”

“Please explain to us how one judge ruled and how the other ruled? What evidence did the one rely on and what proof did the other use?” he added.

The broad discretion judges enjoy have been a disaster for Fatima, another Saudi woman. She suddenly found herself divorced from her husband, Mansour al-Timani, after her half-brothers went to a judge and told him their sister had married beneath her.

Fatima, whose full name has not been given in media reports, had been married for over three years and was pregnant with her second child when the judge declared the marriage void in July 2005.

Today, Fatima sits in jail with her 11-month-old son — her 4-year-old daughter was recently freed — rather than return to the custody of her family as the judge decreed.

Absence of evidence
The problems over sentencing are exacerbated by loose trial rules, in which physical evidence sometimes is not presented.

The Girl of Qatif said her trial had two sessions. The three trial judges asked for her statement, then heard the statement from the seven defendants in the first court session, according to the woman. In the second, about a month later, the judges pronounced their verdict. It was not known if there were other sessions she did not attend.

Judges in the case referred The Associated Press to the Justice Ministry when asked about the sentencing. The ministry, in a statement Tuesday, said rape could not be proved. There were no witnesses and the men had recanted confessions they made during interrogation, the statement said. It said the verdict cannot be appealed.

Sharia allows defendants to deny signed confessions, according to Abdul-Aziz al-Gassem, a lawyer who was not involved in the case. They still get punished if convicted, but the verdict is lighter.

“The lack of transparency in the investigation, the trial and the sentencing, plus the difficulties that journalists have to get access lead to deep a darkness where everything is possible,” said al-Gassem.

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