Lashing in the 21st century

Lashing in the 21st century

I AM fully aware that the penalty of lashing is a very sensitive issue for most people. Nevertheless, as one who seeks to uphold the law every day and who has great respect for Islam and loyalty to my country, I am compelled to speak because the image of Saudi Arabia was profoundly affected recently by a decision of one of our courts. As readers will recall, a Saudi female journalist was sentenced to lashing for her involvement in a TV program about sex. After the verdict was announced, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah waived the punishment and asked the Ministry of Justice to drop the lashing. Her case and that of her colleague were then transferred to the Ministry of Information on jurisdictional grounds.

This act of the king’s is what we all expect from him; he found it necessary to intervene in the case because it had become a matter of public controversy. At the same time, there are many men and women lashed daily in our country and their cases are unknown to the public. Thus, a sentence of lashing requires due consideration and deep thought. Besides, it is disturbing to learn that a substantial number of lashings involve women. This should offend our sensibilities. Of course, there must be an appropriate penalty for those guilty of violating the law and to prevent others from committing similar offenses; otherwise, anarchy and disorder would prevail in society. IN this day and age, however, lashing is too harsh a penalty, especially when used on a woman; it not only destroys humanity and pride but also a person’s dignity. This is not the purpose of lawful punishments for violations in any society. Demeaning the character of the offender produces negative effects far in excess of any benefits to society.

The person who is lashed loses his self-esteem and no longer cares for the consequences of his or her present or future criminal actions, no matter what punishment he or she may face. What other punishment could be harsher than lashing? It fully destroys personal dignity and creates lifelong shame among one’s neighbors, coworkers and acquaintances. What other punishment is more repugnant, particularly if the punishment is imposed on a woman who might be a mother, a sister or a daughter of any of us? We live in a country that has a regional and strategic role in the international community due to historic and geographic factors, in addition to its prominent place in the Middle East and its natural resources. What we should realize is that the Kingdom is a civilized country that is a member of the G20 and it is also one of the most important countries in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

This makes Saudi Arabia the focus of the whole world in the age of satellite channels and globalization. We must hope that our educated and open-minded scholars will develop more humane punishments in place of such brutal ones as lashing. We know of examples of great initiatives in Islamic legislation during the rule of the Prophet’s successor, Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, when he stopped the punishment for robbery during a famine. That progressive attitude clearly showed the extent of convenience and tolerance for developing alternative legislation and punishments for Islamic Law that would fit all times and places. We have lately seen some of our respectable judges taking courageous steps in creating alternative punishments that move away from physical ones. One judge in Al-Baha Primary Court sentenced one of two Saudi men charged with drug violations to work the whole summer in the Office for Call and Guidance while the other was asked to work in a charitable society.

There are many alternative punishments that could be utilized without resorting to harsh and demeaning measures. Why not provide training and professional programs to rehabilitate criminals and reform their behavior? Other alternative punishments could also be applied, such as compulsory attendance in certain rehabilitation programs or working in fields such as cultivation and desert reclamation.

ALTHOUGH these alternative punishments may cost more in the short run, certainly their cost in the long run would be less. We must consider the destruction and damage to the pride, dignity and self-esteem of the individual. When people are lashed and humiliated, they may then have no desire to rehabilitate themselves and therefore become marooned in a life of crime.

The time has come for our legislators to devise necessary alternative punishments and laws to protect the honor and dignity of all. Such laws will require more supervision by the judiciary in order to lessen the burdens of judges who use punishments to maintain the original purpose of punishment — to protect and preserve the rights of plaintiffs or the person who is harmed, to punish the guilty and deter them from committing another crime and to achieve justice for the victim. In this way, peace and security can prevail in society and yet not destroy a guilty person socially, mentally or psychologically. Finally, it is important to bear in mind that not every guilty person is necessarily a criminal by nature; some are good and righteous people who have simply behaved unwisely in a certain situation.

— Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser is a Saudi lawyer and columnist based in Jeddah. He can be reached at [email protected]

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