By Sabria S. Jawhar
Just when I think I have heard it all, something comes along to remind me that anything goes in the Saudi judicial system.
It's more than enough that Saudis risk forced divorces, face punishment for being raped or tossed in jail for conducting business in a crowded Starbucks. Now we find that if a jilted husband guesses that his wife left him because she was talking business-related matters to another man on the phone, then the wife and her supervisor ought to go to prison.
This week the Saudi appeals court will review a case involving a biochemist and his female student. The husband alleges that the biochemist and his wife carried on a telephone affair. So the Saudi lower court sentenced the man to eight months in prison and 600lashes.
The wife got four months and 350 lashes.The biochemist works for a hospital in Al-Baha and supervised the female master's research student, who was working at the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. This started in 2002 and the woman was married in 2004.
She obtained a divorce seven months after her wedding. The husband now holds the biochemist responsible and complained to the Saudi courts, which agreed with him.The biochemist and student say their telephone conversations were work-related. Is it true? Well, no one knows but the two people on the phone.
But what we do know is that they were not in a state of khalwa and they did not have a physical affair. And to add insult to this miscarriage of justice, both defendants have been denied attorneys or to have witnesses testify on their behalf.
The woman's father, who is not a lawyer, is defending his daughter.What this tells Saudis is that anybody can make allegations, whether true or not, and ruin lives. Have some vengeance in mind over a perceived wrong? Well, it appears the Saudi courts can help with that.
We shouldn't respond to international pressure because we look like idiots when these things come up. We should respond to our sense of justice, fair play and simple common sense. What is truly frightening that we are subject to the whims of people who have an axe to grind,who didn't get what they want and turn to the courts to legitimize their revenge.
I appreciate that the Saudi judicial system is in the process of reorganizing its courts and moving toward codifying its laws. But this doesn't help the biochemist who may lose all that he has worked for in his career and the woman who wants her master's degree.
More over, it does not help us as an ambitious country that looks for a leading role among the developed countries.Don't misunderstand. I am not judging their guilt or innocence. I am condemning a system that refuses to allow people charged with serious crimes to be properly represented and defended in court.
And I condemn the apparent low threshold of evidence that anybody can bring forth to allege a crime. Really, doesn't the court legal system have standards for charging crime? Or can anybody walk into a police station and with a signature on a piece of paper send people on a path that can't be altered.
Every time one of these incidents involving the judicial system comes up I feel a little more sense of urgency than I did the previous incident. We need codified laws in place now.The urgency is real because we are witnessing magnificent projects undertaken as our country makes an aggressive move to diversify its resources.
The construction of economic cities and the King Abdulaziz University of Science and Technology will bring thousands of jobs,expatriate workers and more Saudis than ever from the rural areas to these new cities and to Riyadh and Jeddah.
We are on a path to gain international recognition for our work in research and science and not just as an oil producer. This new emphasis on business brings more people and with more people,including foreigners, brings a new responsibility to make our laws –without sacrificing the spirit and intent of Sharia – more consistent with our neighbors.