Court upholds flogging researchers

RIYADH Wed Jul 30, 2008 1:22pm EDT

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RIYADH (Reuters) - A Saudi appeals court upheld a jail and flogging verdict against a biochemist and his female student whose research contact was ruled to be a front for a telephone affair that led her to divorce her husband.

The biochemist, Khalid Zahrani, said Wednesday that he found out this week from the court offices that three judges had approved the verdict.

He was sentenced last year to eight months in prison and 600 lashes and his student to four months in prison and 350 lashes for establishing a telephone relationship that the court said led her to divorce her husband.

The man said the only recourse left to him was the Supreme Judicial Council, a court of cassation that only views cases if requested by the king. He also hopes for intervention from the government's Human Rights Commission.

It was not possible to verify the appeals court ruling and a Commission spokesman was not available for comment.

The hospital where the biochemist worked in al-Baha in the southwest of the kingdom put him in charge of the masters research the student was doing at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah in 2002.

The woman obtained a divorce seven months after she was married in 2004. Her husband then raised the court case, saying the supervisor's telephone calls led to the break-up.

Rights groups and Saudi reformers have criticized what they say is an arbitrary justice system, based on uncodified Islamic sharia law, unsuited to the needs of a country of 25 million people. There are less than 1,000 judges, all of them religious scholars.

The government, a key U.S. ally, says the system ensures justice for Muslims and non-Muslims but is in the process of overhauling the organization of courts and putting a formal penal code in writing.

(Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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