The Legal System
The Saudi Arabian legal system in 1992 was based on the sharia, or Islamic law. The sharia was applied throughout the kingdom in strict accordance with the interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam. Because pious Muslims believed that the sharia was sacred law, they accepted as judges, or qadis, only men who had spent a number of years studying the accepted sources of the sharia: the Quran and the authenticated traditions (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad's rulings and practices. Historically, the decisions of qadis were subject to review by the ruler, whose primary role was to ensure that the Islamic community lived in conformity with the sharia. In effect, the judiciary was not an independent institution but an extension of the political authority. This traditional relationship between qadis and the king still prevailed in Saudi Arabia.
The Ministry of Justice, established by King Faisal in 1970, was responsible for administering the country's more than 300 sharia courts. The minister of justice, appointed by the king from among the country's most senior ulama, was the de facto chief justice. He was assisted by the Supreme Judicial Council, a body of eleven members chosen from the leading ulama. The Supreme Judicial Council supervised the work of the courts, reviewed all legal decisions referred to it by the minister of justice, expressed legal opinions on judicial questions, and approved all sentences of death, amputation (of fingers and hands as punishment for theft), and stoning (for adultery). Since 1983, the minister of justice has also served as chief of the Supreme Judicial Council, a position that further enhanced his status as chief justice.
Sharia courts included courts of first instance and appeals courts. Minor civil and criminal cases were adjudicated in the summary courts of first instance. One kind of summary court dealt exclusively with beduin affairs. A single qadi presided over all summary court hearings. The general courts of first instance handled all cases beyond the jurisdiction of the summary courts. One judge usually presided over cases in the general courts, but three qadis sat in judgment for serious crimes such as murder, major theft, or sexual misconduct.
Decisions of the summary and general courts could be appealed to the sharia appeals court. The appeals court, or court of cassation, had three departments: penal suits, personal status suits, and all other types of suits. The appeals had two seats, one in Riyadh and one in Mecca. The chief justice and a panel of several qadis presided over all cases. The king was at the pinnacle of the judicial system, functioning as a final court of appeal and as a source of pardon.
Saudi Arabia's judicial code stipulated that specialized courts may be established by royal decree to deal with infractions of government regulations not covered by the sharia. Since the reign of Abd al Aziz, kings have created various secular tribunals outside of the sharia court system to deal with violations of administrative rules. The Grievances Board, for example, operated under the authority of the Bureau of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. It reviewed complaints of improper behavior brought against both government officials and qadis. The Ministry of Interior was in charge of the special police who enforced motor vehicle regulations. The Ministry of Commerce supervised arbitration and appeals boards established to settle commercial disputes, especially those involving foreign businesses. Decrees pertaining to labor were enforced by special committees within the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.
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