Saudi Court Sidesteps Religious Accusations

Friday, October 29, 2004

Expatriate Christian ‘convicted’ on alcohol allegations.
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass) -- In an arbitrary verdict handed down last week by a Saudi Arabian court, Christian prisoner Brian O’Connor was convicted of the alleged possession and sale of alcohol in the strictly Muslim kingdom.

Without explanation, an Islamic court in Riyadh ignored O’Connor’s previous charge of “spreading Christianity,” under which he has already been jailed for seven months. Instead, the Indian national was sentenced on October 20 to three more months in jail, along with a punishment of 300 lashes, for the liquor accusations.

But O’Connor refused to accept the verdict, declaring to the court that he was not guilty of any crime. When he refused to accept and sign the verdict, the court granted him 10 days to re-think his decision.

O’Connor again declined, insisting he would not change his decision. The judge then warned him that his refusal would send his case up to the high court. Such an appeal process would delay even further the settlement of his case, he was told, possibly resulting in an even harsher penalty if he was still found “guilty.”

Jailed since March 25, O’Connor was first brought to court on September 15, when he was finally informed of three formal charges filed against him.

At that time, he was told that the muttawa (Muslim religious police) who arrested him had accused him of having 12 bottles of liquor in his possession, along with evidence that he had sold liquor. A group of seven muttawa abducted O’Connor off a Riyadh street and tortured him severely before turning him over to a local police station. He has been incarcerated at Riyadh’s Al-Hair Prison since April 4.

A second accusation on the charge sheet declared that he had pornographic movies in his possession, while the third charge stated O’Connor possessed Bibles and “preached Christianity.”

According to the “evidence” cited at last week’s hearing, 800 Saudi rials (equivalent to $213) had been found in his pockets at the time of his arrest. The muttawas claimed that the serial numbers of these bills matched those recorded by an undercover agent, who they said had bought 12 bottles of liquor from O’Connor in a planned sting operation.

When O’Connor asked the court if his fingerprints had been found on the bills said to have been in his pocket, the court told him that Saudi Arabia did not have any system for checking fingerprints. The judge went on to state there was no need to verify fingerprints, since the muttawas who testified against him were government officials, and the statements of such “elderly and respectable people” did not need to be examined.

Through an official interpreter, the Indian Christian reminded the court that he had been informed at his first hearing last month that the muttawas accusing him would be present in court at the next hearing. However, the court told him his accusers had been called to a separate hearing for recording their statements.

During the first hearing on September 15, O’Connor had defended himself at length regarding his possession of Bibles and Christian videos in English. The Indian said he had brought the Bibles into the country for his personal use six years ago, when he arrived from India. He also had a copy of the Bible on his computer software, again for his personal use, he said.

The 160 videos in his home were mostly Bible-related films and sermons, many downloaded from a Christian satellite TV channel, he said, none of them with questionable moral content.

“Christians in Saudi Arabia are fully supportive of Brian’s claims,” the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern noted in a release yesterday. Although O’Connor has firmly denied the liquor and pornography charges, he has freely admitted worshipping with other Christians in his home.

When questioned about having “illegal meetings for worship” in his home, O’Connor told the court he had read a public statement by a government official from the royal family, declaring that the Saudi kingdom did not “interfere” in the personal faiths of the thousands of non-Muslims working in the country.

In an Arab News article datelined Jeddah on April 9, 2003, and headlined “Non-Muslims Free to Practice Faiths in Private,” Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmad stated, “We don’t interfere in the affairs of other countries, and we don’t allow anybody to do anything contrary to Islam. People are free to practice their religious faiths and beliefs at home and in private.”

On the basis of this statement, O’Connor said he believed it was legal for him to lead a Bible study group with other expatriate Christians of various nationalities, and that he had only done so after reading the official’s remarks. The court denied that this was an accurate understanding of Saudi law, but requested O’Connor to produce the article for examination.

O’Connor had worked as a cargo agent for Saudia Airlines at the Riyadh airport for six years before his arrest.

Under Saudi Arabia’s implementation of Islamic law, defendants are not guaranteed access to a lawyer, with public access rarely granted to trial hearings.