Saudi sharia judges decry Westernizing "stench" of legal reforms
By Angus McDowall
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi judges who enforce sharia (Islamic law) have condemned what they see as "the stench of Western ideas" in sweeping legal reforms pushed by King Abdullah, underscoring friction between government modernizers and religious hardliners.
In a letter to Justice Minister Mohammed al-Issa seen by Reuters, eight judges complained about foreign trainers who shave their beards contrary to purist Islam, the minister's meetings with diplomats of "infidel" states and plans to let women practice as lawyers.
The authenticity of the letter, which did not directly criticize either the king or Issa, was confirmed by a source in the Justice Ministry who said it was sent late last month.
Saudi lawyers and political analysts say the judicial reforms announced by King Abdullah in 2007 and supported by Issa are needed to make the legal system more efficient and modern.
"The system deters investors, who find the judiciary opaque. Outdated administrative procedures and inadequate judicial training remain problems," the U.S. embassy said in an assessment in 2009 revealed by WikiLeaks.
Since becoming de facto regent while he was crown prince in 1995, Abdullah has pursued cautious reforms aimed at modernizing Saudi Arabia's economy and making it more socially open, but he has often been blocked by powerful religious conservatives.
The world's top oil exporter has no written legal code or system of precedent, and judges determine cases based on their own interpretation of sharia.
Lawyers say this means similar cases often yield starkly different verdicts and sentences. In some cases King Abdullah has stepped in to annul decisions seen as embarrassing to the country, such as the 2007 jailing of a rape victim on charges of consorting with unrelated men.
However, the reforms have made scant progress five years after being announced, according to lawyers and the ministry source, a delay they blamed on conservatives in the Justice Ministry and within the judiciary.
"I think the majority of judges are in favor. They want to see development both as professionals and for society. But there's another 30 percent. They fight (Issa) day and night, trying to slow down what he is doing," said the ministry source.
Saudi society and government remain very religious and socially conservative. Women are barred from driving, only Islam can be practiced in public and morality police patrol the streets to enforce compliance with social and dress codes.