In the name of God: the Saudi rape victim's tale

A young woman has been sentenced to 200 lashes after being gang-raped. The Western world has expressed outrage which has, in turn, provoked anger among the Saudi establishment. Now, for the first time, the woman tells her story

Inside Saudi Arabia she has come to be known simply as the "Qatif girl", a teenager who was gang-raped then humiliated by first the police, then the judicial authorities. Her case has propelled her into the international headlines and made her an acute embarrassment for the House of Saud. To the Saudi Justice Ministry, she is an adulteress whose case is being used by critics of the Kingdom. To much of the rest of the world, she is a symbol of all that's wrong with Saudi Arabia.

Today she lives under effective house arrest. She is forbidden to speak and may be taken into custody at any time. Her family's movements are monitored by the religious police and their telephones are tapped.

Her lawyer, Saudi Arabia's foremost human rights advocate, Abd al-Rahman al-Lahem, has been suspended. He has had his passport confiscated and faces a hearing next week in which he may be disbarred. The crime of "Qatif girl", it seems, has been to refuse to be silent about what has happened to her. The 19-year-old first sought to bring to justice the seven men who raped her, then complained in public when the courts saw fit to sentence her to 90 lashes for "mingling", the crime of being out in public with a male who was not her relative prior to the attack.

Coverage of the case this month in the usually tightly censored Saudi media infuriated the authorities. They increased her sentence to 200 lashes and six months in prison. Her sentence still hangs over her.

The girl's fate has become an issue in the US presidential election where the candidates have lined up to denounce her treatment as "barbaric", and Prince Saud al-Faisal was forced, much to his annoyance, to answer hostile questions about her case at the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis this week. "What is outraging about this case is that it is being used against the Saudi government and people," he told reporters.

The Saudi Justice Ministry has launched a deliberate "campaign of defamation" against the girl, said Farida Deif, a Middle East expert with Human Rights Watch, who is among the few independent observers to have met the girl. "They are saying she is not really a victim," Ms Deif said. "They are implying she was an adulteress. They are saying she was undressed before the attackers entered her car."

The Independent has obtained testimony in which the girl describes her attack, the struggle to get the police to take action and the harrowing court appearances that followed.

Her ordeal began with a telephone call: "I had a relationship with someone on the phone," she recounted to Human Rights Watch. "We were both 16. I had never seen him before. I just knew his voice. He started to threaten me, and I got afraid. He threatened to tell my family about the relationship. Because of the threats and fear, I agreed to give him a photo of myself."

A few months later, she said, after she had been married to another man, she became concerned that the photograph might be misused and asked the boy to return it. He accepted on the condition that she would meet him and go for a drive with him. She agreed, reluctantly, to meet the boy at a nearby market. They were driving towards her home when a second car stopped in front of them, she said. "I told the individual with me not to open the door, but he did. He let them come in. I screamed."

She and her companion were taken to a secluded spot where they were both raped, many times. "They forced me out of the car," the girl said. "They pushed me really hard. I yelled out, 'Where are you taking me? I'm like your sister.' They took me to a dark place. Then two men came in. The first man with the knife raped me. I was destroyed. If I tried to escape, I don't even know where I would go. I tried to force them off but I couldn't. In my heart, I didn't even feel anything after that. I spent two hours begging them to take me home."

The second man then raped her, then a third. "There was a lot of violence," she said. In the hours that followed her attackers told the girl they knew she was married. She was raped by a fourth man and then a fifth. "The fifth one took a photo of me like this. I tried to cover my face but they didn't let me."

Despite the prosecution's requests for the maximum penalty for the rapists, the Qatif court sentenced four of them to between one and five years in prison and between 80 and 1,000 lashes. They were convicted of kidnapping, apparently because prosecutors could not prove rape. The images recorded on the mobile phone were presented in court, according to her lawyer, but the judges ignored them.

Her ordeal continued after the fifth rape. Two more men, one with his face covered entered the room and raped her. She repeatedly asked what time it was and was told 1am. Afterwards all seven men came back and the girl was raped again.

"Then they took me home. They drove me in their car. They took my mobile and said that if I wanted it back, I would have to call them. They saw my husband's photo in my wallet when they were searching through my things. When I got out of the car, I couldn't even walk. I rang the doorbell and my mother opened the door. She said, 'You look tired'. She thought I was with my husband. I didn't eat for one week after that. Just water. I didn't tell anyone. I can't sleep without pills. I used to see their faces in my sleep."

Under Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of sharia law, women are not allowed in public in the company of men other than their male relatives. Also, women in Saudi Arabia are often sentenced to flogging and even death for adultery and other perceived crimes.

In addition to these intimidating barriers facing the victim in a country with possibly the worst women's rights record in the world, the girl was also a member of the persecuted Shia minority and her attackers were Sunni. This sectarian divide would be crucial to what happened next.

"The criminals started talking about it [the rape] in my neighbourhood. They thought my husband would divorce me. They wanted to ruin my reputation. I was trying to fix something by getting the photo back and something worse happened."

Irfan Al-Alawi, a Saudi academic and expert on religious persecution in the Kingdom, said that the sectarian background was crucial to understanding the crime.

"Qatif is a centre of the large Shia minority in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. The so-called religious police or mutawiyin, who are brutal in any case, were also acting here in support of Sunni domination over the Shia in Qatif."

Against her attackers' expectations, the girl's husband did not divorce her when news of the attack reached him; instead he sought justice through the courts.

Her husband recalls the frustration of seeing his wife's attackers walking free. "Two of the criminals were walking around in our neighbourhood right in front of me. They attended funerals and weddings. They [the police] should have arrested them out of respect for us. I called the police and told them, 'Find me a solution. The criminals are out on the street. What if they try to kidnap her again?' The police officer said, 'You go find them and investigate'."

He did just that and telephoned the police on four occasions before action was eventually taken. But when the case did come to court the girl's ordeal continued.

She said: "They [the judges] said to me, 'What kind of relationship did you have with this individual? Why did you leave the house? Do you know these men?' They used to yell at me. They were insulting. The judge refused to allow my husband in the room with me. One judge told me I was a liar because I didn't remember the dates well. They kept saying, 'Why did you leave the house? Why didn't you tell your husband?'

"At the second session, they called me in from the waiting room. I went in with my husband. They sentenced some of them to five years, others to three. I thought these people shouldn't even live. I thought they would get a minimum of 20 years. I prayed that they wouldn't even live. Then he said, '[name withheld], you get 90 lashes. You should thank God that you're not in prison'. I asked why and he said, 'You know why. Because it's khilwa hair sharan [mingling begets evil]'. Everyone looks at me as if I'm wrong. I couldn't even continue my studies. I wanted to die."

The ordeal is still not over. The Qatif girl and her husband face an intensely uncertain future. She has been attacked by her brother, who reportedly tried to kill her. Her lawyer, Al-Lahem, believes she may now be pursued by Sunni extremists through the sharia courts.

Her appalling treatment was summed up in one exchange between her husband and the judges at the first sentencing. "It was like she was the criminal," he remembered. "When the judges passed down the sentence, I asked them, 'Don't you have any dignity?'"

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