Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Perturbing the Judiciary? Hurting the Country’s Image? Shame on You!

By William Fisher

By now, most of us have heard the sickening story of the “Girl of Qatif” – the 20-year-old Saudi woman who was gang-raped at knifepoint by seven men and then sentenced to jail time and 200 lashes because she was alone in a car with a male who was not a relative.

Her plight has now become well known through extensive worldwide media coverage. The “Girl of Qatif” – her hometown – is only one of hundreds of others we’ll never hear about. She has become the poster child for much of what we in the West find incomprehensible about the way many Islamic countries define the “rule of law.”

But there is another victim here: The rape victim’s lawyer, a 36-year old named Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem. As if to magnify its incomprehensible sentence, the Saudi court has revoked his license because of "belligerent behavior, talking to the media for the purpose of perturbing the judiciary, and hurting the country's image." He faces a disciplinary hearing tomorrow, December 5, to determine the length of his suspension.

The victims in this bizarre case were originally sentenced to 90 lashes and the rapists were sentenced to between 10 months and five years in prison. Doing what we would expect any good defense lawyer to do, Lahem appealed the sentences. He asked for harsher sentences for the rapists and called the ruling against his client unjust. The court obliged by increasing the sentences of the two victims to six months in prison and 200 lashes, and nearly doubling the rapists’ sentences. The court told the woman her punishment was increased because of "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media."

Lest we forget, Saudi Arabia is one of America’s best buddies. It’s the place where we buy much of the oil we import. And, as President Bush incessantly reminds us, it’s a staunch ally in the “Global War on Terror.”

But here we have another kind of terror: Terror in the Courtroom. It is a kind of terror that violates the most basic tenets of what America is supposed to stand for: the rule of law. It is a terror that springs from the Saudi Kingdom’s strict Wahhabe interpretation of Islamic, or Sharia, law.

This is not to say that American jurisprudence should be the model for the entire world. Our justice system is replete with gross miscarriages, witness our despicable performance at Guantanamo Bay, our courts’ frequent failures to appoint competent lawyers to represent poor defendants, our Kafkaesque sentencing guidelines, and the reluctance of too many of our judges to report prosecutorial misconduct to their state bar associations.

But, though it is not altogether unknown, our judges don’t often go after defense lawyers simply for being tenacious. They applaud them. They and we believe a robust defense is at the very heart of our adversarial system of justice.

Our judges expect defense lawyers to be "belligerent” – while respectful of the court. They may not like it, but they expect lawyers to talk to the media. And they expect to be “perturbed.” For most judges, this is water off a duck’s back. It goes with the territory.

And as for these kinds of issues damaging the country’s image, we have to wonder what could be more damaging than meting out a jail sentence and 200 lashes to a rape victim.