Saudi Arabia's Brutal Tribal Justice
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Saudi Arabia's Brutal Tribal Justice
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A Saudi court ordered Ali al-Khawahir, a 24-year-old Saudi citizen, to be surgically paralyzed as punishment for a crime he committed as a 14-year-old, that had left his victim paralyzed. The Western media has described the court's ruling as an "eye for an eye punishment."

According to reports in the Saudi Gazette, Khawahir stabbed a childhood friend in the spine during an argument ten years ago. The punishment, as decided by the Sharia courts, is similar to other methods used to administer justice, including beheading, flogging, stoning to death and eye gouging.

This arrangement is the product of the religious and tribal structure upon which Saudi Arabia's system of justice and law enforcement is based. Although Saudi Arabia is a theocracy in which the ruler is responsible for applying Islamic law, the actual system of justice revolves around a nexus of power and money, a structure that protects the tribal and religious values that keep Saudi Arabia firmly in the control of the House of Saud.

In 1971, the judicial system was revised -- a move that consolidated the power of those at the top. Power-holders across the country were tasked with appointing a number of quasi-judicial bodies to deal with administrative and economic disputes. With no legislative authority, however, these courts required the clerics to sanction their existence. For this very purpose, the clerics set up the Institute for Religio-Legal Opinions.

The Institute has its own enforcers, known as the Mutawayyin -- The Committee for the Exhortation to Good and Interdiction to Evil - who ensure that Islamic values are implemented. The Committee's most notable moment occurred in 2002, when its members prevented young girls from leaving a burning building because they were not wearing headscarves; at least fourteen of the girls were burned to death.

Crucially, Sharia Law, applied in both the criminal and civil courts, is not codified. With no precedence or structure, except for half-a-dozen defined crimes, Saudi judges, all of whom are Wahhabi clerics, are free to implement punishments in accordance with their own beliefs.

In many ways, the system is feudal. As in medieval Europe, a blood-money payment to the victim's family is evidently often permissible in lieu of legal retribution - an alternative to punishment presumably designed to prevent bad blood between different communities or tribes. In the case of Ali al-Khawahir, the price of avoiding paralysis is one million Saudi riyals ($266,000) - a price the family cannot afford.

Money, it seems, is the ultimate guarantor, facilitating both power and compromise. In 1982, Ghazi Algosaibi, the Western-educated Saudi Minister for Industry, proclaimed that the man who takes bribes is "active and intelligent, usually enjoying the respect of others."

As some families are able to afford such financial redress, for those with wealth or influence, therefore, certain crimes are alluring and unconstrained modes of behavior. More often than not, those who can afford to pay blood-money are clerics or members of the 3000-strong royal family. Recently, for example, in Saudi Arabia a "celebrity" cleric raped and murdered his 5-year-old daughter, but was released after he paid the prescribed blood money to the child's mother. The King, however, after a public outcry, ultimately overruled the court and placed the cleric back in prison.