Islamic justice baffles the West Shariah: Two British nurses are charged in Saudi Arabia with murder under a system of law based on the Koran, not widely understood in the West.

Sun Journal

March 01, 1997|By John Daniszewski | John Daniszewski,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- When the body of nurse Yvonne Gilford was found last December, there was fear in the walled compounds where foreigners live in Saudi Arabia. The 55-year-old Australian had suffered a grisly death. She had been stabbed four times, beaten with a hammer and suffocated in her bed.

In a country that by world standards is almost crime-free, some wondered if a maniac was on the loose. Or was the murder politically motivated? Few were prepared for the news that Saudi investigators announced 13 days later. They accused two British nurses, saying the pair had confessed after being photographed on a spending spree with the victim's credit cards.

Moreover, the two female colleagues of Gilford would be tried in Saudi Arabia's Islamic courts and could face the punishment routinely meted out to convicted murderers, drug smugglers and other serious offenders: death by public beheading.

Now, Saudi Arabian officials sense that, rather than the suspect nurses, it is their system of law that will be on trial. That system -- Shariah, God's divine law -- is central to the Islamic faith, which has more than 1 billion adherents around the world.

Shariah But Western perceptions remain largely limited to lurid accounts of its punishments: the beheadings, amputations and stonings. It conjures images of hell-hole jails, torture, barbaric retribution -- all in all, a medieval system unfit for modern society.

It is not easy to get any other picture. Many Muslims see no need to explain or justify what to them is so self-evidently correct. Few Western scholars and writers have tried, and fewer have succeeded, in crossing the many divides -- cultural, religious, linguistic, philosophical -- that must be bridged in order to understand Islamic law.

But learned Muslim jurists, people who have given their lives to understanding, practicing and applying the Shariah, say many humane and lofty aspects of the system are discounted or ignored in the Western view.

"Islamic Shariah is a system of justice, mercy and tolerance," insists Sheik Muhammad Jubair, for decades one of Saudi Arabia's highest judges and now speaker of the Consultative Council, the appointed parliament. "We have nothing to hide and nothing for which to feel ashamed."

"What the Saudis might consider obedience to God's direct command, the Westerner often calls arbitrary, capricious and cruel," agrees Frank Vogel, an expert on the Saudi legal system who directs the Islamic Legal Studies Center at Harvard Law School. "Talk about a dire conflict of perceptions."

The trial in Dhahran of nurses Lucille McLauchlan and Deborah Kim Parry, and the furor their case has generated in the British media, provide an apt example -- "a lovely case of cultural misunderstanding," Vogel says.

Complex law

Although Shariah is based on the Koran -- the sacred book of Islam -- only about 500 of the 6,236 Koranic verses have instructions that could be taken as moral or legal injunctions. But over the past 1,300 years, a complex body of law and custom has developed from those verses and from other roots, particularly the sayings and deeds of the prophet Mohammed.

Especially here, in the birthplace of Islam and the heartland of Arabian history, culture and language, Muslims take enormous pride in the resultant legal system.

Besides their belief that the Shariah was revealed by God to his prophet Mohammed as a guide for all time -- making it superior to mere man-made laws -- Saudis say it has proved to be fair and effective in practice, giving them social harmony and one of the lowest crime rates anywhere.

Judges are, by definition, religious scholars. In Saudi Arabia, religious leaders do not just talk about morality in the law; they apply it daily, as they think that God would want.

Human Rights Watch, a prominent international watchdog, thinks they err.

"Throughout 1996, the conduct of trials fell far short of international norms," the group says in its latest annual report. "Saudi law did not guarantee the right to counsel, made no

provision for notifying families of arrests and imposed no maximum time limit on pretrial detention. There were reports that judges often accepted uncorroborated, forced confessions as the sole basis for conviction."

Saudi Arabia, with 18 million people, executed 71 in 1996. The United States, with 260 million, executed 45. Shariah says punishments should be public, as a lesson to the community.

Punishments dictated by the Koran -- stoning for a married adulterer, flogging for an adulterer's unmarried sexual partner, amputation of a hand for a thief -- are rarely carried out because of the narrow definitions of the crimes and the difficulty under Shariah rules of proving them.

For example, one could not suffer amputation for shoplifting. It is not considered real theft, since the goods were not locked up. Neither would one face the punishment if one stole in order to eat.

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