Saudi Arabia is a unique, amazing and extremely diverse region. The Land of two Holly Mosques is the cradle of Islam, the sacred sight attracting thousands of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world. At the same time, this country of modern luxury sky-scrapers, oil companies and vast deserts is full of unpredictable dangers.
Giving lessons to my students at High School, I, a Chemistry teacher focused their mind on the contradictory reality of this country. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family. There are no elected representative institutions and political parties. Religion is not separated from the state. Shari’a is the civil and criminal law of this nation and its constitution is the Koran, a sacred book dated the period of 610 A.D. to 622 A.D. (Brand 3). Such a nonsense, a weird travelling into the Middle Ages. Trying to bring up critical thinking in my students, I highlighted all the primary events of today’s world and, of course, could not but warn them of terrorism and its consequences. As revealed later, my actions and comments upset some teachers of Islam at my school. My colleagues convicted my students and filed a lawsuit against me. In fact, I appeared to be a great sinner accused of all possible offences such as mocking religion, blasphemy and even witchcraft (I’m not joking). Having overcome betraying, I am a lucky person, not losing my sincere belief in this country and its people.
On Monday, 15 December, I was shocked when I saw a police car in the school yard. A few minutes later, the principal asked me for a private conversation and informed that I was banned from teaching. The policeman told me that I was accused of mocking Islam and witchcraft and that I had to follow him. The reason was not complicated. My colleagues and my students filed the lawsuit against me. The accusation was too serious (sorcery may lead to the death penalty). That is why, the criminal police had to detain me and put into a jail. I made a statement in which I refused all the accusations. The report was to be sent to the Governor’s office. The police officer informed me that, according to regulations, the investigation is held at the Investigation and Persecution Unit. Further, the detainee is transferred to a public prison until the Governor office makes a decision. It may take several months. He told me that there were no specific rules for commencing criminal cases in Sharia’s courts. Once police receive the claim, the court notifies the accused personally.
In a quarter of an hour, I found myself in a stuffy jail. Some unhealthy looking men told me the following. In Saudi Arabia arbitrary arrest is strictly prohibited by law. Nevertheless, criminal police arrest and detain people without explicit legal guidelines. The authorities often threaten people and regularly bring to police stations people accused in the religious offences. Two days before the religious police enforced a ban on non-Muslimworship. Uniformed police broke up to a Christian service and arrested the participants, including children.
There was one more terrifying fact. In Mecca, Saudi religious police did not permit schoolgirls to leave the burning building because they were not wearing the proper Muslim clothes. There were about 800 pupils inside when this terrifying tragedy took place (Saudi). However, all I could do at the moment was waiting.
The police officer entered the cell and informed that regulation allows detaining suspects no longer than three days before charging them. In real life, suspects are held for several weeks and even months. According to the regulation, they can be released for bail if the crimes are not serious or even without the payment of bail, in cases when a patron or sponsoring employer addresses them. If the detainees are not released, they can stay in police for about two months. Then the accused have the following ways out: the case may be sent to trial, or if the detainees are foreigners they may be deported. The most disgusting is that the regulation does not provide the detainees the right to inform their relatives of their imprisonment.
The conditions in prisons leave much to be desired. The cells are unsanitary and overcrowded. Basic food is often eaten from the floor, though prisoners’ relatives are allowed to provide them with additional meal. The lavatory is absent. The hole in the floor replaces it. I must admit that it is not dangerous in prisons, and correction officers’ treatment is not brutal.
Families are allowed to visit their relatives, but only after a long period of time since their arrest.
System of Shari’a Courts. According to jurisdiction, Sharia courts are divided into three types: courts of first instance (musta’jalah), courts of second instance (the High Courts of Shari’a Law, the kubra courts) and courts of third instance (appeal courts).
Musta’jalah courts regard small claims and misdemeanors. They have original jurisdiction over all taz’ir offences and two of the hard crimes (defamation and intoxication). The court consists of a single qadi (judge).
The criminal jurisdiction of The High Courts of Shari’a Law includes hard offences and all qisas crime. They are situated in Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah. The single qadi regards cases. In complicated cases that result in penalties of execution, stoning, or amputation, the High Courts consist of three judges.
Two appellate courts of cassation regard appeals of defendants sentenced to death, stoning and amputation. The severest punishments are heard by a five-judge panel. Other appeals are regarded by a three-judge panel.
The final level of appeal is the Supreme Judicial Council. It reviews the decisions of the appellate courts of cassation. The Supreme Judicial Council supervises the entire Shari’a judicial system of Saudi Arabia (Walker 870-871).
Sharia courts preserve the ancient traditions and do not rely on lawyers. My lawyer was ignored and made leave the court. The main actors are plaintiffs and defendants who represent themselves. The sole judge conducts the hearing, and the jury system does not exist. Trial does not include pre-trial discovery process and cross-examinations of witnesses. I was indignant the fact that women in Saudi Arabia have not the same rights as men. In a Shari’a court, the testimony of a woman is half of the testimony of a man.
What is more, during the court proceedings of family cases, male relatives replace female parties and speak on their behalf. The most terrifying is that Sharia’s police coerce confessions from suspects by means of threats.
Thinking over the information, I followed the officer and found myself in a stuffy tiny courtroom. Not looking at me, my former colleague Mohammed was driving away an importunate fly. I was depressed. If found guilty, I may be imprisoned and even get a more serious penalty.
‘To prove your claim under the law,’ the qadi was muttering in an irritating way,’ you are required to present two witnesses to testify the truth of your complaint. I can see only one person.’ The plaintiff turned embarrassed, wiped the sweat from a forehead and said he did not have them.
‘Then you must demand the oath’. ‘I demand the oath, your Worship ’, whispered the plaintiff. ‘To a Muslim, lying under oath is one of the most serious sins. Remember it.’ Now it was my turn to answer. Having spent 6 months in jail and feeling homesick, I was fed up with all this puppets show and exclaimed, ‘I’m innocent. I’m not possessed by the jinn or afflicted with the evil eye. I have not gone to a fortune teller and did not ask him about anything. I have not entered an arrangement with shaitan. I admit that I talked to my students about terrorism and its consequences and hung anti-terrorism signs around the school. I do believe that my duty as a teacher to enlighten my students. ’Amused crowd was staring at me. The qadi turned to me and said,” The Prophet stated that even if his own daughter Fatima stole, her kingship would not save her from hadd.’ I was adjusted guilty and got 40 months in prison and 750 lashes – 50 lashes per week for 15 weeks (“Teacher”).
I was going to use my right to appeal against such a severe sentence. It must be submitted to the Appeal Court within 30 days from the date of the written court decision. This appeal is to be submitted by the court of first instance that made this decision (Prison).
P.S. Appeals court has made the decision to send my case back for reconsideration. It noted that all charges against me needed to be verified. No surprise that judges upheld their verdict.
Common offences. In Saudi Arabia, criminal law is based completely on Sharia Law and is divided into two branches: the branch of public rights and the branch of private rights. Public rights allow the authorities to prosecute a person who is suspected of committing a criminal act. Private rights allow a victim to claim restitution from another person, give an individual the right to claim or waive and the right of choosing the penalty for the accused person. Civil private rights are bailable. Accused individual may be released in three cases: if somebody provides financial guarantee, an appearance guarantee or both of them. Criminal public rights are not bailable.
Classification of Crimes under the Shari’a. I made some enquiries about my accusation and main offences in Islam. There are three categories of crime in Sharia law: hadd, qisas and tazir. The seven hadd crimes are the following: adultery, fornication, false accusation of adultery, apostasy, drinking alcohol, theft, and highway robbery. Qisas crimes include personal injury. It may be of several types: murder (intentional, quasi-intentional, and accidental) and injury (intentional and unintentional). Ta’zir crimes are false testimony, bribery and petty theft (Walker 867).
Islam regards a qisas (retaliation) offense as a common law tort. The judge may only convict an individual for qisas crime. Punishment is chosen by the victim or the victim’s family. It may be a retribution or blood money compensation. Retribution includes execution (determined in the cases of intentional murder) or amputation of the limb (chosen in the cases of intentional battery). Blood money is received if the victim forgives the perpetrator. If the offender is forgiven, he is to get a tazir prison sentence.
My new friend continued, ‘That sad man, sitting near the window, is accused of sorcery. He was the leader of a popular talk-show. He predicted the future in his program and gave advice to his audience. Two months ago he flied to SA to perform religious pilgrimage and was arrested by religious police. The court sentenced the man to a death penalty and imposed beheading next Monday.
A weird and cruel penalty was imposed on a woman who dared to be alone in a car with a man unrelated to her. A woman, who had been raped, was sentenced to imprisonment and 200 strokes of lash’(The Saudi).
I must highlight that there is certain women discrimination in Saudi Arabia. A woman may not drive a car and is arrested if there is a male who is not her relative next to her in the car. She is not allowed to travel alone either. What is more, women need a male relative’s agreement to be cured at hospital.
The narrator remarked, ‘One more thing. Most prisoners are released after passing three-quarters of their sentences, but this information is not aired. In fact, the reports are false. The state of affairs in jails and prisons is suppressed.’
Taking into account my experience, I would recommend you to be extremely careful of what you do, what you say and even which food you eat in Saudi Arabia. If you happened to visit this sacred land, try to follow its customs and traditions. You should remember that drinking alcohol is prohibited. Drug-addicts, homosexuals or persons who committed adultery may be punished by death. What is more, non-payment of debt is considered an offence and may lead to imprisonment (Prison).
Having got into trouble, you should connect the Embassy of your country as soon as possible after your arrest. They can give you and your family some tips on prison procedure and the way you should behave. They can also pass on any information from you.
At the Police Station. In the case of arrest, your sponsor or a Saudi National may be able to release you under the bail. When the Embassy is informed of your detention they will immediately contact your employer if you are resident in Saudi Arabia and your Saudi sponsor if you are a visitor. Consular staff can provide you the contacts of local lawyers. If you do have to pay, you should accept a flat fee for the whole case before starting. Otherwise, you may overpay extremely. If you are convicted, no suspended sentence is given to you as a foreigner.
Saudi Arabia is a magnificent country charming travelers. It is the cradle of Islam and is remarkable for its sacred sites that attract pilgrims from all over the world.
Nevertheless, the first impression is often deceptive. If you get deep inside into Saudi inner life, you will be extremely surprised and shocked. Under the picturesque and luxury cover you can face severe and cruel core. Contemporary Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by the King. No elected representative institutions and political parties exist in this country. Religion is not separated of the state. The modern legal system is based on Sharia derived from religious books Koran and Sunna dating the 7th century. The judiciary is the means of influence of authorities.
Terrifying penalties, sincere beliefs in jinns and witchcraft look like a nightmare. Minor attitude to woman and following some stupid prejudice may lead to unpredictable consequences. No escape from the severe punishment.... I am deadly sure I cannot subscribe to this view on reality. Perhaps, the saying “When in Rome do as the Romans do” is true to life, but I do wish these medieval experiences be left in the past.