Saudi Nurses: Media insults to Fahd reflect badly on UK

Tabloids' attacks may well provoke a backlash, writes Akbar Ahmed, an authority on Islamic law
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The Independent Online
THE return to Britain of Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan has provoked a controversy which tells us more about Britain than about the Saudi justice system.

If we look at what is being said by the newspapers who have bought up their "stories", we find attacks on the circumstances in which the nurses' confessions were obtained, the fact that their trial was closed to the media, the handling of witnesses and the role of defence attorneys.

I do not wish to defend Saudi justice, with all its shortcomings - including the terrible conditions in the cells and the lack of access to English- speaking authorities - but I am disappointed to see no acknowledgement of the magnanimous act of King Fahd in accepting the nurses' petition for mercy.

Saudi Arabia is not alone in having regrettable flaws: conditions in British jails are also often wretched, with overcrowding, same-sex rape and the incarceration of wrongly convicted prisoners. Yet Muslim law is wise in incorporating a safety valve in the form of the granting of mercy on the grounds of compassion. However, rather than express gratitude to King Fahd, members of the British press have demanded that he should now apologise to the nurses.

The logic seems to be that if there might have been a miscarriage of justice in this case, then the whole system of Muslim law is so flawed that we should not accept the results of any trial held under it. This is the excuse given by the tabloid editors who have chosen to violate their own press code by paying money to convicted lawbreakers.

The next step in this process is all too predictable to seasoned observers of British chauvinism. The papers will soon move from commenting derisively on Saudi justice and its deficiencies, to condemning Islamic justice as "barbaric" and "medieval". These two words will then feed into a general hostility towards Muslims everywhere, including those resident in Britain. This is the very process that flared up here last year, when the nurses were being tried. There is, unfortunately, an inherent xenophobia in society that is easily triggered.

I am not supporting anything unjust or cruel. If such things happened in the case of the nurses, that is not Islamic justice. No more than it is British justice, when innocent people are convicted here. But when you have a miscarriage of justice in any system, you must be restrained in your condemnation, because when condemnation of a particular fault is fed into a general stereotype the whole matter becomes very complicated and fraught with undesirable consequences.

One such consequence of the ungrateful and insulting way the British press has reacted to King Fahd's act of human kindness will be to embolden the nationalists in Saudi Arabia, who were not happy with his pardoning of foreigners in the first place. The King made an Islamic choice, not a popular one.

What I would hope would result from the publicity in Britain is that the more serious-minded in Saudi Arabia would learn how their legal practices are seen from another perspective, and benefit by advocating improvements and reforms. The people in authority might then come to recognise defects in their system and ask how to mend them.

But all this will be more difficult now. The emotions being generated here will cause the Saudis to close ranks, and defend their system as perfect.

True compassion in Britain would have welcomed the nurses home quietly. The pressure of publicity is not good for their mental health, nor for others who may someday be in their position. If people here become known throughout the world for not accepting the results of foreign trials, authorities in those countries will find it difficult to show compassion.

The writer is a fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge University. and formerly served as a commissioner in Pakistan, conducting court proceedings.