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Outcry over flogging of 20 Saudis

The teenagers' punishment following a rampage in the Eastern Province infuriates liberals and rights activists.

Saudi police make ready a square for public floggings in the Saudi city of Khobar on September 28, 2009.
Saudi police make ready a square for public floggings in the Saudi city of Khobar on September 28, 2009.

JEDDAH // The flogging of 20 Saudi teenagers involved in a rampage in the Eastern Province of the kingdom has infuriated the country's liberals, who are against flogging as a punishment, and human rights activists who saw in the flogging an abuse of the youths' legal rights. Saudi police arrested 80 males who were accused of vandalism on September 23, the eve of the National Day, on Khobar Corniche where hundreds of youths destroyed shops and damaged public property causing an estimated 250,000 riyals (Dh245,000) in damage.

Twenty received 30 lashes each during a public flogging Monday night while the rest are still under questioning by the police. Brig Gen Yousuf al Qahtani, a spokesman for the Eastern Province police, said all those flogged were Saudis and that four of them were under the age of 18. Twelve vandals were flogged in Khobar while eight were flogged in the city of Dammam. The police tried to prevent people from taking photos or filming the flogging and because of that it changed the locations of the flogging in the two cities several times.

According to a police statement, the flogging was an administrative decision made by the provincial authority and not a court ruling. Waleed Abu al Khair, a Saudi human rights activist and lawyer, said the flogging was against the young males' rights as they did not appear in court. "Flogging is a Ta'azeer punishment and it must be made by a judge and not the city administration," Mr Abu al Khair said.

There are two types of punishments in Islam: "Hud" and "Ta'azeer". Hud is a punishment that has been well defined by Islamic law whereas Ta'azeer is left for a judge to decide. Even if the decision to flog the youths had been made by a judge, it is still unacceptable in this case because the sentence did not match the size of the crime, Mr Abu al Hair said. "Flogging in public is a great humiliation to the individual and it will cause social embarrassment to him and this is against Islam," he said. "Apparently, the flogging of the youths was made to humiliate and not to punish them. This is not acceptable to all humane societies. The authority in the Eastern Province realised that and that is why they tried to prevent the people from filming or shooting photos of the flogging."

Abdu Khal, a liberal columnist and novelist, wrote in his column in the Okaz daily newspaper on Tuesday that punishing the youth shows how incompetent society is in dealing with them. Khal said Saudi society has always looked upon its young citizens with disdain. He called for other ways to deal with criminal youth instead of flogging them, which will have a negative effect on their development. "The time they spent in jail after arresting them will be enough for them [as a punishment] instead of flogging them in front of whom they know and whom they don't," he said.

But some members of Saudi society welcomed the lashings and saw in it a way to preserve security in the country where public gathering and protest is illegal. Some conservatives called for even more severe punishment of the youth. Fawaz Aziz, a columnist at the reform-orientated Al Watan wrote yesterday that the flogging was the right decision. He said there is nothing about it that the government should be ashamed of despite the international criticism because the teenagers deliberately vandalised private and public properties.

The headline on his column was "Flog them on YouTube". Mutlaq al Anazi, managing editor of Al-Yaum newspaper, in the Eastern Province, told the Arab News that he favours lashing the youth over putting them in prison. Al Anazi told the daily that in jail, the youth may come in contact with criminals and this will complicate the situation as the process of integrating them back in society can become extremely difficult.

"The primary objective of flogging in public is to shame them. It is to make them realise that what they have done have their consequences," he added. foreign.desk@thenational.ae