By Angus McDowall
RIYADH, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Saudi judges who enforce sharia
(Islamic law) have condemned what they see as "the stench of
Western ideas" in sweeping legal reforms pushed by King
Abdullah, underscoring friction between government modernizers
and religious hardliners.
In a letter to Justice Minister Mohammed al-Issa seen by
Reuters, eight judges complained about foreign trainers who
shave their beards contrary to purist Islam, t he minister's
meetings with diplomats of "infidel" states and plans to let
women practice as lawyers.
The authenticity of the letter, which did not directly
criticise either the king or Issa, was confirmed by a source in
the Justice Ministry who said it was sent late last month.
Saudi lawyers and political analysts say the judicial
reforms announced by King Abdullah in 2007 and supported by Issa
are needed to make the legal system more efficient and modern.
"The system deters investors, who find the judiciary opaque.
Outdated administrative procedures and inadequate judicial
training remain problems," the U.S. embassy said in an
assessment in 2009 revealed by WikiLeaks.
Since becoming de facto regent while he was crown prince in
1995, Abdullah has pursued cautious reforms aimed at modernizing
Saudi Arabia's economy and making it more socially open, but he
has often been blocked by powerful religious conservatives.
The world's top oil exporter has no written legal code or
system of precedent, and judges determine cases based on their
own interpretation of sharia.
Lawyers say this means similar cases often yield starkly
different verdicts and sentences. In some cases King Abdullah
has stepped in to annul decisions seen as embarrassing to the
country, such as the 2007 jailing of a rape victim on charges of
consorting with unrelated men.
However, the reforms have made scant progress five years
after being announced, according to lawyers and the ministry
source, a delay they blamed on conservatives in the Justice
Ministry and within the judiciary.
"I think the majority of judges are in favor. They want to
see development both as professionals and for society. But
there's another 30 percent. They fight (Issa) day and night,
trying to slow down what he is doing," said the ministry source.
Saudi society and government remain very religious and
socially conservative. Women are barred from driving, only Islam
can be practiced in public and morality police patrol the
streets to enforce compliance with social and dress codes.
EXTENSIVE LEGAL REFORM PLAN
Issa, a former senior judge and top cleric but regarded as a
moderate and one of the architects of the reforms, was appointed
by King Abdullah in 2009 and tasked with accelerating the
"It needs a lot of work to create these courts and I don't
believe they're working as fast as we need. Commercial cases
especially need things to be done quickly," said Jassem
al-Attiyah, a well-known lawyer.
The plans entail setting up a supreme court, specialised
criminal, commercial, labour and family courts and expanding the
number of appeals courts as well as establishing a record of
precedent to help guide lawyers and judges.
What for conservatives was more controversial was
introducing non-sharia training for judges and allowing them to
use other schools of Islamic law besides the very strict one
traditionally followed in the kingdom.
In their letter to Issa, the judges said teachers at
judicial schools were unqualified and complained about their
unbearded appearance and habit of smoking cigarettes,
characteristics frowned upon by very strict Muslims.
Earlier this year in a move intended to strengthen Issa's
position, King Abdullah appointed him to head the Supreme
Judicial Council, which controls the judiciary, a position
previously held by conservatives.
In recent years the monarch has also sacked senior
state-employed religious figures who publicly opposed reforms,
including heads of the judiciary and morality police.
The conservative kingdom was founded by an alliance of the
al-Saud ruling family and clerics of the strict Wahhabi school
of Islam, and successive kings have based their legitimacy in
part on their credentials as religious leaders.
"In an Islamic country if you lobby as Islamic you find a
lot of supporters," said the ministry source. "Commercial law is
very difficult when you have a judge who doesn't study
principles of law but principles of religion."
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