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Saudi Arabia – The Paralysis Controversy

April 5, 2013

The recent case of a man in Saudi Arabia who has reportedly been sentenced to being paralysed has implications beyond the unusual method of punishment.

Commentators in the West, including Amnesty International and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have expressed outrage at the sentence, which is based on Quranic interpretation of “an eye for an eye”.

The punishment seems to be overshadowing the fact that the offender – who stabbed a friend in the spine, resulting in the victim’s paralysis – committed the crime at the age of 14. According to the FCO, the age of legal responsibility for men in Saudi Arabia is the point at which they reach puberty. Theoretically therefore, had Ali Al Khawahir not reached puberty when he committed the crime, he would not be subject to the punishment. Since puberty is generally arriving earlier than in previous generations (here’s an article from Intelligent Life on the subject), there must be a real prospect that a physically mature 11-year-old could in the future face execution for murder.

The case echoes the recent execution of seven Saudis for robbery. Two of those executed committed the crimes when aged 16.

In the UK, the age of criminal responsibility is 10. If a person commits a crime between that age and 17, they are subject to a different punishment system. As an example, in 1993, two 10-year-old boys were convicted of murdering 2-year-old James Bulger in a horrific fashion. They were released on licence – meaning that they could be returned to detention if they committed any subsequent crime – upon reaching adulthood in 2001. Had they committed the crime when adults, they would have received life sentences, with the strong possibility that the judge would have recommended that they serve at least 25 years in prison before being eligible for parole.

Another famous case in the UK was that of Mary Bell, an 11-year-old who was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility after she had killed two young boys. She was also released on licence – in her case at the age of 23.

A further factor in the Saudi case is that the perpetrator has served ten years in jail already. While comparisons between the UK legal system and the Sharia – which is the basis of Saudi law – are likely to be irrelevant in the eyes of a Saudi judge, the chances are that in the UK Mr Al Khawahir would probably be a free man by now. Right now, the only way he can avoid the punishment is to pay the victim “blood money” of $270,000.

As John Burgess pointed out in a recent Crossroads Arabia commentary:

“It is going to be exceeding hard — if not impossible — to make a change in law that directly reinterprets a Quranic injunction and so to make the acceptance of blood money the only response. A law that made sense nearly 1,500 years ago no longer makes sense. The change can be accomplished, but it will take bravery on the part of the government and the clerics.”

My sense is that the more likely development will be that the Saudis will instruct the judges to apply some form of mitigation – formally or informally – in the case of offenders who have not reached a certain age. Maybe not 18, but perhaps 16. In the case of Mr Al Khawahir, they will also be mindful of the damage to their international reputation – in general and specifically among the medical profession, one of whose members will be asked to carry out an act that many would consider contrary to medical ethics – and will quietly find the means to pay the required blood money on his behalf.

There is an additional dimension to this case. Though I am neither a lawyer nor an expert in the Sharia, my understanding is that judges under the Sharia are empowered to apply lenience in cases of ambiguity or uncertainty – shubuhat. In the current case, the judge could have taken the view that the offender did not intend to paralyse or kill his friend. If such a principle was not a factor in judgements, Saudi Arabia would face the prospect of wholesale amputations of limbs, paralyses and executions as the result of daily acts of dangerous driving that result in injury and death.

As John Burgess says, the Saudis can change the law, but resistance to Quranic reinterpretation is likely to be fierce. So whatever the international outcry, do not expect the kind of changes being called for by the Kingdom’s critics, such as abolition of the eye-for-eye principle. Instead, expect quiet persuasion applied towards the judiciary and, as is the Saudi way, small steps towards reforming the legal system.

  1. This kind of punishment is barbaric no matter the age of the assailant at the time of the crime. Prison and/or a monetary award to the victim should suffice.

    • As you eloquently pointed out in your post. Let’s hope the rules change soon. S

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