January 16, 2013 / 5:03 PM / 8 years ago

Saudi judicial reshuffle may spur stalled legal reforms

RIYADH (Reuters) - A shake up of Saudi Arabia’s top judges, announced this week, may help unblock reform of a conservative Islamic legal system seen as hindering investment, lawyers and analysts say.

Critics of Saudi Arabia’s sharia legal system say it is opaque and slow, and that judges whose training is in traditional interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence sometimes do not understand more complex, technical cases, particularly in commercial law.

King Abdullah announced reforms to the system in 2007, introducing specialised courts to hear criminal, commercial, family and labour law cases, and expanding and retraining the judiciary.

But Conservative clerics, judges and bureaucrats in the Justice Ministry have obstructed the changes, reform-minded lawyers say. The specialised courts have not yet been set up and some judges have objected to retraining.

New judicial appointments this week might inject new impetus to the reforms, but the changes are unlikely to come fast and will not address fundamental characteristics of Saudi law that are widely criticised abroad, such as the lower legal status of women and punishments that include beheading and amputations.

On Tuesday the king appointed a new head of the Supreme Court, Sheikh Ghaihab al-Ghaihab, and a new secretary general for the Supreme Judicial Council, Sheikh Salman bin Nashwan, both seen as representing a slightly younger generation that may be more open to some modest change.

He also named nine new judges to the Supreme Court.

“These changes confirm the king is following up on reform of the judicial system,” said Majid Garoub, a prominent lawyer in the Red Sea city of Jeddah known for his work on legal reform.

“There are younger generation judges involved in the Supreme Court of Justice now,” he added.

Critics of the current system point to a wide variation in sentences for similar offences and say judges sometimes choose to hear cases without allowing defendants legal representation.

Under the kingdom’s sharia law, judges determine verdicts on the basis of their own interpretation of Islamic law without sentencing guidelines issued by the Justice Ministry or reference to previous cases.

In November, a group of conservative judges wrote to the king and reformist Justice Minister Mohammed al-Issa attacking what they described as the “Westernising stench” of reform.

In their view sharia, which they see as divinely ordained, should remain solely in the hands of religious authorities without any interference by the state.

The kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, adheres to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of the faith and its ruling family came to power with the support of the still powerful clergy.

Issa was appointed justice minister in 2009 as the king grew impatient at the slow pace of change. Last year he was also made acting head of the Supreme Judicial Council, giving him more influence in the appointment of judges.

“There are more young judges who are more updated on changes to society and developments in education and technology. They are in favour of the king’s reform of the judicial system,” Garoub said.

Analysts in the kingdom have cautioned that any progress in retraining judges and standardising judgements will be very slow, even by the usually glacial pace of Saudi reform efforts, because sharia is central to the legal system.

Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Robin Pomeroy

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