Professor Faces 180 Lashes for Having Coffee With Student

Thursday , February 28, 2008

A university professor allegedly caught in a Saudi-style honey trap has been sentenced to 180 lashes and eight months in jail — for having coffee with a girl.

The man, a prominent and well-respected Saudi teacher of psychology at Umm al-Qra University in the holy city of Mecca, was framed by the religious police after he angered some of their members at a training course, his lawyer said.

The academic has not been named by the local media, which have given his case wide coverage, but one senior Saudi journalist told The Times he was Dr. Abu Ruzaiz, a married man in his late 50s with children.

“He is highly respected and above-board. Nobody believes the religious police’s version of what happened. The whole of Jeddah (the main city near Mecca) is in uproar about this. Everyone believes he is innocent and was set up,” the journalist said.

Contact between unrelated men and women is strictly prohibited in the desert kingdom where religious police, commonly known as mutaween, patrol public places in teams to enforce their brand of ultra-conservative Islam.

Usually bearded and often wielding canes, they ensure women are not harassed, sexes do not mix and shops close for prayers. They are under the command of the Saudi Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Abdullah Al-Sanousi, the academic’s lawyer, told local newspapers that his client had drawn the ire of some of the Commission’s staffers for speaking at length during a training session about how important it was for them to be polite to the public. Some of the trainees also wanted revenge because they had failed the course while others were not happy with their examination results.

Ruzaiz is said to have received a call from a girl purporting to be one of his students who asked to meet to discuss a problem that she did not want to talk about over the phone. The professor agreed to meet at a family cafe, provided she brought her brother along as a chaperone.

When he arrived, he was surprised to find the girl alone, and was promptly surrounded by religious policemen who handcuffed him and hauled him into custody. He was accused of being in a state of khulwa — seclusion — with an unrelated woman.

His lawyer insisted that because the two met in a public place frequented by hundreds of families, the question of khulwa, or illegal seclusion, never arose. The commission, however, insists that the family sections at coffee shops and restaurants are meant only for families and close relatives.

The professor is said to have taped a later conversation with the girl in which she admitted that she had been sent to the cafe by the religious police. The professor is relying on an appeals court to overturn the verdict. His lawyer has urged local human rights associations to back his plea for reviewing the case.

A spokesman for the Commission in Mecca denied that his officials had conspired against the professor. “They are honourable people and would not create such a trap for any kind of personal revenge,” Ahmad Kasim Al-Ghamdi, told Arab News, a local paper.

The controversial case is the latest of several involving the often over zealous religious police that brought widespread international coverage that has embarrassed the Saudi authorities.

Kim Howells, the British Minister for Middle East Affairs, raised the issue of human rights with the Saudi authorities during a visit to the Kingdom this week. “He also mentioned certain high profile cases that have made international headlines recently,” a British official told The Times.

A 37-year-old American businesswoman and mother-of-three was recently thrown in jail for sitting with a male colleague at a Starbucks coffee shop.

In another high-profile case, an illiterate Saudi woman is hoping that King Abdullah will spare her life after she was condemned to death for “witchcraft.” Her accusers included a man who claimed that the woman, Fawzi Falih, had made him impotent with her sorcery.

An international human rights group said Falih — who faces being publicly beheaded — was allegedly beaten by religious police and forced into fingerprinting a false confession.

Prosecutors are currently investigating 57 young men arrested last week for flirting with girls at shopping centres in Mecca. They were accused of wearing indecent clothes, playing loud music and dancing in order to catch the attention of girls. The men insisted they were just trying to “have fun” without “imposing themselves” on the women.

And a teenaged victim of a gang rape was sentenced last year to 200 lashes and six years in jail for having been in an unrelated man’s car at the time. She was pardoned by King Abdullah, although he maintained the sentence had been fair.



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