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Saudi rape sentence ignites anger

King pledges a review after court gives victim 200 lashes in a case that embarrasses nation and sparks calls for reforms.

December 16, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — A recent court decision sentencing a victim of gang rape to 200 lashes for un-Islamic behavior has outraged a nation accustomed to harsh punishment and has highlighted the slow pace of government reform since King Abdullah rose to power two years ago.

Judges guided by their interpretation of the Koran insinuated that the married victim, known in the media here as the Qatif girl, was immoral because she was meeting a man alone when the pair were accosted by seven knife-wielding attackers. In November, she was sentenced to six months in prison in addition to the lashing; her assailants received five-year prison terms.

Saudis are used to the public beheadings of murderers and amputations of the hands of pickpockets, but the Qatif girl's ordeal embarrassed the country at a time Riyadh is negotiating major international business deals and emerging as a potential broker in Middle East peace talks. The government has said it will review the case, an indication that the king may move to overrule Islamic fundamentalists.

King Abdullah is widely regarded as a modernizer in a royal family balanced between those favoring change and others who insist on maintaining a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Satellite TV and the Internet have created a more open media and the king has supported local elections, even if they offer only token democracy. But liberals and human rights activists complain that hard-liners remain in control of the courts, Interior Ministry and other government agencies.

"Don't expect big changes and sudden successes, but reform has taken root," said Mishary A. Alnuaim, the vice dean of law and political science at King Saud University. "Modernizing religion is still slow. That's the million-dollar question. You still find a lot of messages of intolerance.

"Much of this is about the real or imagined invasion of Western culture. . . . The religious hard-liners want to produce the argument that the Muslim world is still being victimized by Western influence and political power."

'Rhetorical reform'

Conservatives have been emboldened by increased global energy demands and high oil prices that have enriched the kingdom. Reliance on oil has tempered criticism from Washington and other Western capitals over the lack of women's rights and the sweeping power of the Saudi state. Some analysts say the king, while more progressive than much of his population, fears that hurried reforms could lead to public anger and possible religious revolt similar to that which brought down the shah of Iran in 1979.

"You have a lot of dynamic change in Saudi Arabia. There's high unemployment, lost investments and a worried middle class," said Martrouk Faleh, a university professor who has been jailed for his reformist activities. "At the same time, the nation's elite feel no external pressure for reform because of strategic U.S. and British business and oil interests."

Mohammed Fahad Qahtani, a talk show host and professor at the national Diplomatic Studies Institute, calls it "rhetorical reform."

"One royal camp truly wants change but another doesn't," he said. "When we had our municipal elections [in 2005] the so-called elected authorities of these councils didn't know their mandate, and when they asked the government, they were told 'It's none of your business.' "

There have been some encouraging signs, however. The quasi-legislative advisory body to the king, known as the Shura Council, appears to have gained influence in recent years. The monarch followed the council's suggestion to deny a 20% pay raise to the country's religious police, known as mutaween, who patrol shopping malls chastising and arresting women whom they deem improperly veiled. The decision signaled that the king was reining in a religious force many Saudis complained had become increasingly repressive.

National dialogues have opened debates on reforms and invited limited input from critics. In 2005, municipal elections in Riyadh, Mecca and Jidda gave hope that democracy could coexist with a monarchy. Elected officials now have some latitude in overseeing development in their cities, but overall, their power is curtailed by the royal family and corruption that drives many business and construction deals.

"We want to know who gave the permit for that shopping center. How much was paid for it? This is how you stop corruption," said Ibrahim Hamad Quayid, an elected Riyadh city councilman, whose corner window office overlooks shopping malls and tinted-glass high-rises. "The king is good, the crown princes are nice. . . . But there are those in bureaucracy who can corrupt everything, even when it comes to putting fire extinguishers in buildings."

The risks of dissent

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