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King overturns 60-lashes verdict against journalist

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - (San'a, October 26, 2009) - The swift action today by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to overturn a sentence of 60 lashes against a Saudi television producer sent an important message to the country's courts, Human Rights Watch said today. King Abdullah should also overturn the sentence against the man at the center of the case, who had spoken about sex on a television show, and initiate reforms to strengthen the rights to freedom of expression and to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.

A court in Jeddah on October 24, 2009, convicted Ruzana al-Yami of LBC Television of "cooperating with a media (organization) unlicensed in Saudi Arabia," for her role in an episode in which Abdul Jawad, a guest on a television show, detailed his sexual encounters outside of marriage. The court had specified that her sentence of 60 lashes was a "deterrent", to be administered in one session.

"King Abdullah's swift revocation of this punishment sends an important notice to the Saudi judicial system that it should not go after journalists for exercising free speech," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Earlier in October, the same court had sentenced Jawad to five years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "incitement to sin" over his public confessions, aired on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation's "The Reddest of Lines" show in August.

Saudi Arabia has no penal code, and judges are free in the vast majority of cases to define any action they deem unacceptable as a crime and set any measure of criminal punishment, including lashes and the death penalty. Only crimes against God (hudud), such as apostasy, theft, adultery, and consumption of alcohol, are defined under the Saudi system.

This broad discretion has repeatedly led the judiciary to impose criminal penalties for protected speech. In May, a judge, Hamad al Razine, sued an Arab News journalist, Hayat al-Ghamdi, with criminal defamation for reporting on comments he made about the permissibility of wife-beating at a conference on domestic violence in Abha, contending she had misquoted him, though witnesses confirmed that what she wrote was accurate. In August, a court had sentenced the already-imprisoned Hadi Al Mutif to an additional five years in prison for sending a prison video of himself to Al-Hurra television station in February 2007. Al Mutif has spent the past 15 years on death row for "apostasy" over comments he allegedly made as a young police recruit in 1994 that were interpreted as insulting the prophet Muhammad.

King Abdullah in 2005 specified that jurisdiction over media matters lies with the Ministry of Information, which may constitute a tribunal of government officials to discipline media organizations over content violating the Press and Publications Law. In both the LBC and Arab News cases, however, Sharia criminal courts ignored Abdullah's directive and exercised jurisdiction themselves.

"Saudi courts have repeatedly punished persons for free expression without a clear basis in law," said Whitson. "While the King's revocation of this most recent sentence sends a good message, only real reforms in the legal system will address the repeated attacks on the media by Saudi courts."

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