Two Cases Shed Light on Floggings in Muslim World

British woman spared flogging, but practice of lashings not going away.

ByABC News
February 19, 2009, 9:55 AM

Nov. 29, 2007 — -- A British teacher charged in Sudan with inciting religious hatred was spared the maximum sentence of 40 lashings with a bamboo cane Thursday, but will spend 15 days in jail before being deported.

Gillian Bibbons was charged after she allegedly allowed her her young students to name a teddy bear Muhammad, the name of the Muslim prophet.

The one-day trial came just one week after a Saudi Arabian court increased the sentence of a 19-year-old rape victim to 200 lashes and six months in prison. According to a Justice Ministry statement, the woman invited the sexual attack by seven men because she was in a parked car with a man who was not a relative.

The two highly publicized cases of women facing the ancient and painful sentence of flogging have aroused an outcry in the West, but the practice is common in some parts of the world, and such sentences aren't extreme examples, experts say.

Human rights organizations describe corporal punishment as a violation of international bans on torture and call these sentences cruel and arbitrary. But academics say the practice is deeply ingrained, particularly in Gulf states, and local support increases in parallel with Western condemnation.

By Saudi standards, the sentence of 200 lashings for the 19-year-old rape victim, known in the Saudi press as the Girl From Qatif for the crime of "illegal intermingling," is not very high, said Chris Wilcke, the Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Wilcke said that flogging is almost always a component of any Saudi sentence, and some lashings can number in the thousands.

Last month two gay men in the Saudi city of Al-Bahah were convicted of sodomy and sentenced to 7,000 lashes each.

Floggings in Saudi Arabia typically take place Thursday nights outside of prisons or marketplaces. The accused is shackled and sometimes permitted to wear a single layer of clothing, like the popular Saudi tunic or dishdash.

A police officer administers the lashes with a bamboo whip about 7 feet long. Under his arm, the officer will typically hold a copy of the Koran in order to regulate the power with which he can whip the accused.

"In the sentence a judge will specify three things: One, the amount of lashes; two, whether the flogging will be held in the prison or publicly; and third, what portions are to be administered at one time," Wilcke said. "No more than 60 to 70 lashes are administered at any one time with usually one to two weeks between floggings. Women will get 10 to 30 lashings a week; a man might get 50 to 60 per week."

If a complete sentence was administered at once, the accused could potentially die. Doctors in Saudi Arabia examine prisoners before each flogging to determine if they are healthy enough to withstand the lashes.

In 1993, British citizen Gavin Sherrard-Smith received 50 lashes for allegedly breaking an alcohol ban in the Gulf country of Qatar.

He recently recounted his punishment in the Daily Mail, saying, "The blows were raining down on my body, from the shoulder blades to the calves, then back up again. But with each blow, the skin softened and the pain grew and grew to the point that my whole back felt like it was on fire. Soon it was unbearable, but they kept coming, mostly on my left shoulder and calf. I had to summon up all my control not to move. I didn't realize the human body could generate and tolerate such pain. I had never felt anything like it before, and I hope I will never feel anything like it again."

Lashing is a common penalty under Wahabi interpretations of sharia law, the Islamic religious laws that underpin the legal systems in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

For some crimes, the Koran specifies the number of lashes required. But for most crimes, the sentence is at the discretion of the judge hearing the case.

Not everyone agrees that the Koran condones the flogging of women, however.

"There is nothing in the Koran -- that is there is no Koranic justification -- for sentencing the Qatif woman to flogging," said Yvonne Haddad, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University.

"Flogging has not been used in all places at all times throughout the Islamic world. In the places where it continues to exist it is steeped more in local tradition than Islam. The practice varies from place to place. Pakistan has a flogging law, as does Iran. Most of the Gulf countries, especially those influenced by Wahabiism have flogging," she said.