Legal system of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is unique in enshrining a religious text as a political document. The primary source of law is the Islamic Sharia derived from the teachings of the Qu’ran and the Sunnah (the traditions of the Prophet). Sharia is not codified and there is no system of judicial precedent. Saudi judges tend to follow the principles of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence (or fiqh) found in pre-modern texts and noted for its literalist interpretation of the Qu’ran and hadith. Nevertheless, because the judge is empowered to disregard previous judgments (either his own or of other judges) and will apply his personal interpretation of Sharia to any particular case, divergent judgements arise even in apparently identical cases.
Royal decrees are the other main source of law; but are referred to as regulations rather than laws because they are subordinate to the Sharia. Royal decrees supplement Sharia in areas such as labor, commercial and corporate law. Additionally, traditional tribal law and custom remain significant.
The Sharia court system constitutes the basic judiciary of Saudi Arabia and its judges and lawyers form part of the ulema, the country’s religious leadership. However, there are also extra-Sharia government tribunals which handle disputes relating to specific royal decrees. Final appeal from both Sharia courts and government tribunals is to the King and all courts and tribunals follow Sharia rules of evidence and procedure. The Saudi system of justice has been criticized for being slow, arcane, lacking in some of the safeguards of justice and unable to deal with the modern world.
In 2007, King Abdullah issued royal decrees reforming the judiciary and creating a new court system, although the reforms have yet to be implemented[when?]. The capabilities and reactionary nature of the judges have, in particular, been criticized and, in 2009, the King made a number of significant changes to the judiciary’s personnel at the most senior level by bringing in a younger generation.
Western-based organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemn both the Saudi criminal justice system and its severe punishments. However, “ordinary Saudis”, according to a BBC report, support the system and say that it maintains a low crime rate. There are no jury trials in Saudi Arabia and courts observe few formalities. Human Rights Watch, in a 2008 report, noted that a criminal procedure code had been introduced for the first time in 2002, but it lacked some basic protections and, in any case, had been routinely ignored by judges. Those arrested are often not informed of the crime of which they are accused or given access to a lawyer and are subject to abusive treatment and torture if they do not confess. At trial, there is a presumption of guilt and the accused is often unable to examine witnesses and evidence or present a legal defense. Most trials are held in secret.
Capital and physical punishments imposed by Saudi courts, such as beheading, stoning (to death), amputation and lashing, as well as the sheer number of executions have been strongly criticized. The death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offences including murder, rape, armed robbery, repeated drug use, apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery and can be carried out by beheading with a sword, stoning or firing squad, followed by crucifixion. The 345 reported executions between 2007 and 2010 were all carried out by public beheading. The last reported execution for sorcery took place in June 2012.
Although repeated theft can be punishable by amputation of the right hand, only one instance of judicial amputation was reported between 2007 and 2010. Homosexual rights are not recognized. Homosexual acts are punishable by flogging or death. Lashings are a common form of punishment and are often imposed for offences against religion and public morality such as drinking alcohol and neglect of prayer and fasting obligations.
Retaliatory punishments, or Qisas, are practised: for instance, an eye can be surgically removed at the insistence of a victim who lost his own eye. Families of someone unlawfully killed can choose between demanding the death penalty or granting clemency in return for a payment of diyya, or blood money, by the perpetrator.
In March 2014, the Saudi interior ministry issued a royal decree branding all atheists as terrorists, which defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”.