I’m pulling together what we know—and what we don’t know—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.


November:27:2007 - 12:13 | Comments & Trackbacks (17) | Permalink
17 Responses to “On the Case of ‘Qatif Girl’: Summary”
  1. 1
    anon Said:
    November:27:2007 - 14:02 

    Thanks Mr. Burgess! This is a great roundup and I’m printing everything. A particular reporter might be interviewed by CNN tomorrow (Thursday) to discuss what was in today’s Okaz newspaper: a judge of the Court of Cassation (the Saudi court of appeals) used the term “mercenary” to describe the foreign criticism and expressed his opinion that the woman be put to death (presumably for adultery). It’s not clear ifthis man will be one of the judges on the case, but for a JUDGE on the Appeals Court to speak to the media about what he thought should happen to the young woman is outrageous and doesn’t bode well for the appeals trial (unless he just happens to be a renegade wacko who has nothing to do with the case, I suppose. . .).

  2. 2
    AbuSinan Said:
    November:27:2007 - 15:17 

    John,

    I didnt think the men were convicted of rape and I dont think that allegation was made in court, even though it is clear what happened.

    I was under the impression everyone involve, victims and the men, had all been convicted of nothing more than being alone with a non Mehram member of the opposite sex.

    It was also my understanding that the allegation of rape wasnt even actually made in the court as there was no proof of rape. I thought this was part of the entire issue.

  3. 3
    Andy Said:
    November:27:2007 - 15:37 

    Excellent summary, thanks for tracking this in a non-hyperbolic manner.

  4. 4
    John Burgess Said:
    November:27:2007 - 17:12 

    Abu Sinan: Whether the men were convicted of rape or some other charge is unclear. Some reports say that rape could not be proved because the charge was raised four months after the fact. Others are not so declarative.

    It is clear that something happened to both the woman and her companion, but the court does not appear to be saying just what. Instead, the court is levying punishment to all. That is so close to the ‘Kill them all and let God decide’ mentality that it’d be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

    The Saudis are in dire need of comprehensive reform. That is promised, but it needs to be seen to be believed.

  5. 5
    olivetheoil Said:
    November:27:2007 - 23:00 

    Anon:
    Is it this article you were referring to about the judge who said the girl should be put to death?
    http://www.okaz.com.sa/okaz/osf/20071127/Con20071127155482.htm

    I found it on Saudi Jeans.
    I don’t read Arabic and online translators are not very reliable, but from what I can make out, if this is the face of judiciary, then divine intervention might be needed to protect the women of Saudi Arabia.

    John, thank you for your summary. About the rape shelter, in the context of the Qatif girl case, isn’t the woman opening herself to the risk of prosecution (flogging and death is the above judge has his way) by going there?

    What is the point of a rape shelter when the victim’s statement amounts to a death sentence?

    Strangely enough, I am not being sarcastic. My brain is just too bewildered for it.

  6. 6
    John Burgess Said:
    November:28:2007 - 00:02 

    Even the Qatif court isn’t alleging that the girl committed adultery by being raped!

    She was charged with the crime of being in the unchaperoned company of an unrelated male–who was also raped, according to reports.

    Nigeria has seen a few cases where a rape victim was sentenced as an adulterer, but the Saudis don’t go that far. They recognize rape for what it is.

    But do keep in mind that the guys who attacked the Qatif girl were never actually charged with rape of either her or her companion. Who knows exactly what they were charged with?!

  7. 7
    olivetheoil Said:
    November:28:2007 - 00:20 

    Thanks for the explanation John.

    Though I beg to disagree that they recognize rape for what it is. At least in this case they don’t appear to do so if “she asked for it” is their explanation for the brutal sentencing.

    Your response however does not really answer my question. I understand she is being charged with the crime of being in the unchaperoned company of a man.

    Wouldn’t that be true in all rape cases? I presume women are NOT chaperoned at the time of rape.

    I know in this case the unrelated male in question was the man she went to retrieve the photograph from.

    But if “being in the company of an unrelated male” is sufficient for flogging or a death sentence, it seems that apart from the rape, the court still has grounds for sentencing the woman under the present logic because I presume women don’t usual have chaperones when being raped.

    BTW, I am a female raised in a conservative Asian country and I understand the chauvinism and covering up rapes to protect the honor of the family. My family specialized in it.

    What I don’t understand is how such a judicial system so divorced from any concept of justice survives. At least I know if in my country the rape victim came forward, she could do so without fear that the judge sentencing her for “calling it on herself.”

  8. 8
    John Burgess Said:
    November:28:2007 - 01:22 

    I certainly don’t want to begin to figure out what’s going through these judges’ minds! They seem to be so utterly involved in parsing every diacritical mark in their texts that they’ve utterly lost track of what justice is about. And people thought counting the numbers of angels who could dance on a pin was crazy!!

    But to the point: A woman can be raped by a stranger, say someone who breaks into her home. A woman can be raped by a relative. (The problem of incest is only now starting to attract social and media attention, btw.) The woman need not be in any sort of morally compromising situation in either event. Women doing their circumambulation of the Kaaba have even reported being assaulted by ‘frottageurs’. Surely these women cannot be deemed culpable.

    But there is that insidious belief held by many Muslims that women are the temptresses, unable to curtail their passions and always threatening to lead men astray. For some Saudis (and the Taleban) even a glimpse of a woman’s hair is enough to incite lustful behavior. I’m sure these judges take that as a matter of faith.

    For these judges, it seems that being in a compromising situation is adequate excuse to blame the victim.

  9. 9
    Sparky Said:
    November:28:2007 - 01:37 

    From my understanding, the girl is being punished for being in kulwah or seclusion with bad intentions. Meaning she was acting loose according to their interpretations. They have concocted an X rated scenario. The reason I am confident when I say this is because the Qatif girl, her husband and lawyer are all saying that she did nothing improper apart from being in seclusion and trying to retrieve a photo.

    Later official statements were trying to accuse her of being undressed and fooling around not necessarily doing the deed completely. Also from my understanding she was engaged not married at the time which would make her an unmarried woman. Unmarried woman do not receive the death penalty for illegal relations but lashes. The term is called fornicator not an adulteress.

    The people who are launching these accusations against her are setting themselves up for their own punishment as long as the victim stands her ground and says she is innocent. Thus, the accusers are treading very dangerous ground from an Islamic point of view.

    The prophet Mohammad ordered people to be lashed after they had launched false accusations about his wife Aisha after she had been in seclusion with a man. Since they could not produce evidence or reliable witnesses who would say they actually saw something immoral happening there was punishment in this life and the next for them.

  10. 10
    AbuSinan Said:
    November:28:2007 - 08:23 

    John,

    You write “But there is that insidious belief held by many Muslims that women are the temptresses, unable to curtail their passions and always threatening to lead men astray”.

    I just love the stereotypes. This, unfortunately, is a common belief in many countries and many faiths. Trying to pass it off on “many Muslims” is a bit misleading.

  11. 11
    John Burgess Said:
    November:28:2007 - 10:19 

    AbuSinan: We’re not talking about ‘many faiths’ here. Yes, women have been viewed with suspicion in many places, at many times. The Bible seems to lay blame on Eve for that apple incident, after all.

  12. 12
    anon Said:
    November:28:2007 - 13:34 

    As I understand it, the rapists were bragging about their crime around town, which is how the husband found out about it. This may have played a role in convicting them.

    CNN, by the way, did an awful job in the interview today: they actually asked Ebtihal Mubarak if she was upset about the ruling. What kind of question is that?

    Also, CNN spent weeks trying to interview Al-Lahem and when they finally get it they give him like a minute or two of air time. What’s the point?

  13. 13
    anon Said:
    November:28:2007 - 18:02 

    I noticed your update here. It’s a good point: the judges said they couldn’t charge them with rape because of a lack of Shariah-compliant evidence (witnesses). I would be curious to know specifically what these seven men were found guilty of. It sound to me like the judges are indeed charging them with rape, or some kind of equivalent, but say they can’t issue the punishment of death due to the lack of witnesses. But, as usual, the real answer lies with the court itself, which has been frustratingly vague and, as you say, waffling in their public statements.

    And this judge in the Court of Cassation making those statements to Okaz newspaper!!! He says they should all be put to death. He also called the foreign media “mercenaries” and went as far as to say outsiders are just jealous of Saudi Arabia. Is he kidding me?? The King should strip him of his post immediately. For a judge on the court where this case is going (it’s not clear if he will be presiding or not) to declare such an opinion openly is outrageous and appalling.

  14. 14
    al-waleed Said:
    November:30:2007 - 13:09 

    John,
    You did a great job. The summary is extremely helpful for anyone trying to follow all the stages of the case, or to analyze the problems it raises.

  15. 15
    John Burgess Said:
    November:30:2007 - 14:12 

    Thanks. There are still aspects of this case that are mysterious to me, though. Lack of transparency, limited abilities of the Saudi press, intentional obfuscation by officials, and social reticence to discuss the unseemly all act together to make it hard to understand fully.

  16. 16
    Saudi in US Said:
    December:09:2007 - 02:08 

    There are many rumors that this case may resolve soon. A Saudi columnist, Mansoor Al Negadan, has a column in Alwaqt (Bahraini news paper) where he reported that:

    - The judgment against the girl will be nullified
    - The attorney’s license will be restored (not sure if this is on a more permanent basis than reported earlier)
    - The rapists will receive higher sentences that may include the death penalty for some
    - That this was as a result of a review committee that was established outside of the justice ministry

    I am not sure how strong the sources this was based on, but Mansoor is also a religious columnist for Al-Riyadh news paper.

    Here is the link to his column, which is in Arabic unfortunately.

    http://www.alwaqt.com/blog_art.php?baid=5436

  17. 17
    Sparky Said:
    December:09:2007 - 07:45 

    Saudi in the U.S

    Good News! Thank you for sharing this.

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