I’m pulling together what we knowâ€”and what we don’t knowâ€”about the case of ‘Qatif Girl’, the young Saudi woman from the city of Qatif in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, who was gang-raped after she and her male companion were dragged out of a car. The woman did not report her rape until four months after it happened. This delay appears to have suggested to the judges that something was wrong with the allegations. The exact circumstances of the attack are still muddied, with conflicting details being offered by different parties. [UPDATE: It's important to note that the men alleged to have raped the woman and her companion were never actually charged with rape. Because charges were brought against them so late, neither the court nor the woman's attorney thought that a case of rape could be proved. The men were found guilty of some sort of bad behavior, but not exactly rape.]
The incident came to public attention in Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2006. By mid-November, it was in the Saudi media, being portrayed as an abuse of judicial power. Details as first reported (and still) have been contradictory and unclear. The rapists were sentenced to periods of one to five years imprisonment and 80-1,000 lashes. Both victims were sentenced to 90 lashes for the religious crime of being together in a secluded situation. Unrelated Saudi men and women are not permitted to be alone in each other’s company. There is an assumption that they will be committing immoral acts.
Associated Press correspondent Donna Abu-Nasr filed the first report on this story to make it into the Western media. She reported that the verdict handed down in the case had shocked Saudi society. She noted, too, that many Saudis felt that the current legal system left too many things to the personal whims of judges and that Saudi law needed to be codified.
Partially in response to this case, the Saudi government established the first rape clinic to help women deal with rapes. As much as it offends Saudi self-image, rapes do happen, committed by Saudis upon Saudis. Dealing with the issue as a forensic, legal matter rather than a socio-religious affront, could help victims. If nothing else, it could help society understand that rape is a crime, not just a sin, and that the victims do not deserve social opprobrium.
Also in response to the verdicts, ‘Qatif Girl’ sought to appeal the sentences handed down to her rapists. The Saudi Supreme Judicial Council agreed that the case should be re-opened.
This November, the Higher Court of Justice issued new verdicts through the General Court in Qatif. It essentially doubled the jail terms of the rapists. At the same time, it also increased the number of lashes meted out to the female victim to 200 and six month’s jail time. (The male victim did not seek appeal, thus his sentence remained the same: 90 lashes.) This is the story that has currently blazed through international media and the Internet.
In addition to the verdicts handed out to ‘Qatif Girl’ and her rapists, the Qatif General Court also stripped her attorney of his license to practice law. It alleged that the lawyer, by ‘trying his case in the media’ had attempted to subvert justice. The attorney, Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, stated that he would fight on, not only to regain his license, but to find a fair judgment for the woman.
Last week, the Saudi Ministry of Justice issued a statement backing the decision of the court. This statement said that the woman was in ‘a state of undress’ (exactly what that means is left unstated). It alleges that she was having ‘an illegal affair’ (exactly what that means is left unstated. They suggest that she was committing adultery, but refuse to actually say that, instead leaving it to the reader to draw conclusions. Basically, they’re suggesting that the woman ‘was asking for it’ and deserved what she got. The Ministry also complained that the media was ‘stirring things up’ and reporting without full information. This last complaint has some merit: details as reported in the media have not been clear and are often contradictory. The Ministry and the courts, however, have not helped make things any clearer as they obfuscate what they are actually saying.
The Saudi daily newspaper Arab News has been reporting on the story as well as providing space to columnists. Lubna Hussein wrote a very strong piece that saw the verdicts as an indictment of the Saudi judicial system as a whole.
Later Saudi press reports quote the victim’s husband as supporting his wife and her attorney. He condemns the courts and their verdicts and believes personal prejudice affected the judges. Saudi media reports that the judges have lashed out at the media. The attorney has gone public in defending his actions and stated that he will defend himself against the court’s actions.
Media in other Gulf States have covered the issue. They report that Saudi women are outraged by the verdicts.
In reaction to the media criticism (including statements from US Democratic Party presidential hopefuls), the Ministry of Justice issued ‘Qatif Girl’ has finally spoken on the case. She gives a blow-by-blow account of what happened and maintains her innocence.
Most recently, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal criticized the verdicts in a press conference in Washington, DC. He said that he hoped the verdict would be overturned on appeal. He also said that judicial systems, everywhere in the world, sometimes come up with bad results. He noted, too, that the Saudi judiciary is independent of the executive, suggesting that the government was not about to step in at this point. This, of course, leaves open the possibility of executive clemency in the end, after all appeals have been made. [The Al-Arabiya report also covers an on-air debate between the attorney and a former Saudi judge on the case. This is well worth reading!]
So where does that leave us?
The verdict against ‘Qatif Girl’ is being appealed to the Saudi Court of Cassation (Appeals Court). It can rule to sustain the lower court’s verdict; it can overturn that verdict; it can order the case re-heard. If the appeal fails, ‘Qatif Girl’ can appeal to a higher court and ultimately to the King.
Her attorney is currently appealing the pulling of his license. He has pointed out that they court’s action is without legal authority.
The Saudi judicial system is under an intense, global spotlight. This case points out the weaknesses in that system, primarily in that it relies solely on the discretion of judges. Laws are not codified in Saudi Arabia. This means that each judge has it within his power to interpret that law (the Quran, Hadith, and Sunna) as he best sees fit. The gravest weakness is that one judge may see a case in one way while another sees it completely differently.
This is one of the reasons behind the recently announced intention to reform the Saudi legal system, top to bottom. A vast amount of work lies ahead for the Saudis as they implement these reforms. The reforms are critical as they restructure the system and provide for more transparency. They are not enough, however. Codification of the laws is still needed so that one knows unequivocally whether one is transgressing a law (not a custom) and what punishments are due.
The case of ‘Qatif Girl’ is a mess, as is much in the rapidly changing Saudi Arabia. Modernization and reforms have stuttered forward and back over the 70 years of Saudi history. They need to move forward now, with deliberate speed.