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Saudi girl in marriage case wins appeal

  • Story Highlights
  • Rights groups hail appeals court decision because it keeps mother's challenge alive
  • Case now goes back to original judge, who had refused annulment, sparking outrage
  • Researcher for Human Rights Watch: Child marriages are not rare in Saudi Arabia
  • Women's rights activist Al-Huwaider wants law protecting girl from early marriages
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By Mohammed Jamjoom
CNN
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(CNN) -- An appeals court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has rejected and refused to certify a court ruling allowing a 47-year-old man's marriage to an 8-year-old girl, said a relative of the girl with knowledge of the proceedings.

Under the Saudi legal process, what the appeals court ruling means is that the controversial marriage is still in effect, but a challenge to the marriage by the girl's mother is still alive.

Rights groups hailed this week's decision because it keeps the mother's challenge going.

"I think that it happened because of the mother, because she refused to accept the [original] verdict, because she challenged the court in and took it to the appeals court, said Saudi women's rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider. "I really admire the mother for this."

The mother is extremely relieved, the family member told CNN. She also expressed her thanks to the head of the appeals court for the attention paid the case, according to the Saudi daily newspaper Al-Riyadh on Tuesday.

The appeals court action now sends the case back to the earlier judge, who will decide whether to stand by his original decision.

There in Onaiza, the judge will have a chance to either overturn or uphold his first verdict, the girl's relative said. If the judge upholds his verdict and refuses to annul the marriage, then the case will again go to the appeals court, the family member told CNN. If the judge changes his decision, then the case is effectively over, the relative added.

Al-Huwaider, co-founder of the Society of Defending Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia, warned that while this latest development should be considered a victory for women's and children's rights, this is only a first step.

"For our women's rights group, I feel this is the first real achievement we've had since we started," she said. "We are happy for the girl and her mother but this is just the first achievement. We want a law in Saudi Arabia that protects girls from early marriages -- a law that states that girls have to be at least 17 before they can marry and boys have to be at least 18. When that happens, we will really celebrate."

The case, which has garnered much criticism from rights groups within and outside Saudi Arabia, came to light in December when the Onaiza judge refused to annul the marriage on a legal technicality. Sheikh Habib Abdallah al-Habib's dismissal of the mother's petition for annulment sparked immediate outrage.

The mother's lawyer, Abdullah al-Jutaili, said the judge found that the mother -- who is separated from the girl's father -- is not the legal guardian and therefore could not represent her daughter.

The judge also requested and received a pledge from the girl's husband, who was in court, not to allow the marriage to be consummated until the girl reaches puberty, al-Jutaili said.

The lawyer said the judge ruled that when the girl reaches puberty, she will have the right to request a divorce by filing a petition with the court. Al-Jutaili said the girl's father arranged the marriage in order to settle his debts with the man, "a close friend" of his. The judge's verdict was appealed.

In a statement issued shortly after the original verdict, the Society of Defending Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia said the judge's decision went against children's "basic rights."

Marrying children makes them "lose their sense of security and safety," the group said. "Also, it destroys their feeling of being loved and nurtured. It causes them a lifetime of psychological problems and severe depression."

Zuhair al-Harithi, a spokesman for the Saudi Human Rights Commission, a government-run human rights group, said that his organization was fighting child marriages. "Child marriages violate international agreements that have been signed by Saudi Arabia and should not be allowed," al-Harithi said.

Child marriage is not unusual, said Christoph Wilcke, a Saudi Arabian researcher for the international group Human Rights Watch, after the initial verdict.

"We've been hearing about these types of cases once every four or five months because the Saudi public is now able to express this kind of anger, especially so when girls are traded off to older men," Wilcke told CNN.

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