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Saudi official moves to regulate child marriages

  • Story Highlights
  • Law will place preserve the rights of children and prevent abuses, he says
  • Announcement comes amid uproar over 8-year-old's marriage to man, 47
  • Judge says girl may petition for divorce once she reaches puberty
  • Girl's mother continues to appeal case
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By Mohammed Jamjoom and Saad Abedine
CNN
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(CNN) -- Days after a Saudi judge upheld the marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a man 39 years her senior and blocked a divorce, the kingdom's justice minister said he plans to enact a law that will protect young girls from such marriages, according to local media reports.

The law will place restrictions on the practice to preserve the rights of children and prevent abuses, Justice Minister Mohammed Al-Issa told Al-Watan, a daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, where all newspapers require government permission to publish.

Al-Issa said there would be a study of a system that will include regulations for the marriage of minors and everything related to such unions, the newspaper reported. No details on the restrictions or regulations were mentioned.

The minister did not say whether child marriage would be abolished.

His comments came on the heels of a court verdict that was handed down in a child marriage case, one that is causing outrage both inside and outside Saudi Arabia. On Saturday, a Saudi judge refused for a second time to annul a marriage between an 8-year-old girl and a 47-year-old man, a relative of the girl said.

The most recent ruling, in which the judge upheld his original verdict, was handed down in the Saudi city of Onaiza, where late last year the same judge rejected a petition from the girl's mother, who was seeking a divorce for her daughter.

The relative said the judge, Sheikh Habib Al-Habib, "stuck by his earlier verdict and insisted that the girl could petition the court for a divorce once she reached puberty."

Last month, an appeals court in the Saudi capital of Riyadh declined to certify the original ruling, in essence rejecting al-Habib's verdict, and sent the case back to him for reconsideration.

Under the complicated Saudi legal process, the appeals court ruling meant that the marriage was still in effect but that a challenge to the marriage was ongoing.

Abdullah al-Jutaili, lawyer for the girl's mother, said that the mother has submitted the case once again to the court of appeals in Riyadh and that he expects a hearing to take place within the next month.

"I am very optimistic that justice will finally prevail," al-Jutaili said.

Responding to the justice minister's comments and the possibility of a new child marriage law, al-Jutaili said, "this is what we requested from day one, and we know that Saudi officials are working so hard on resolving this issue."

Al-Jutaili believes that such a law would help not only his defendant but many other Saudi minors facing a similar problem.

The case, which has drawn criticism from local and international rights groups, came to light in December when al-Habib declined to annul the marriage on a legal technicality. The judge ruled that the girl's mother -- who is separated from the girl's father -- was not the girl's legal guardian and therefore could not represent her in court, al-Jutaili said.

The girl's father, according to the attorney, arranged the marriage in order to settle his debts with the man, who is "a close friend" of his. At the time of the initial verdict, the judge required the girl's husband to sign a pledge that he would not have sex with her until she reaches puberty, al-Jutaili said.

The judge also ruled that when the girl reaches puberty, she will have the right to request a divorce by filing a petition with the court, the lawyer said. Al-Jutaili added that the girl is currently living with her mother and has not been told she is married.

CNN was unable to contact both the girl's father and the judge in the case.

On Monday, the head of the United Nations Children's Fund issued a statement expressing concern about the case. UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said, "the right to free and full consent to marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Consent cannot be free and full when either party to a marriage is too young to make an informed decision."

Veneman added that although child marriages are not uncommon in some parts of the world, they are a violation of human rights and they deprive "the child of her childhood."

"It is a violation of these children's rights, and it's a violation of what is good for children all the way around and it should not be tolerated anywhere," she said.

U.S. State Department spokesman told Robert Wood reporters Wednesday that child marriages are "a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights in our view."

He said the State Department condemns the "issue of child marriage," but stopped short of taking the Saudi government to task for the case of the 8-year-old girl.

"Our embassy has raised this issue quite frequently," Wood said. "The Saudis know of our concern, and it's not just our concern. It's a concern for others in the international community."

The issue of child marriage has been a hot-button topic in the deeply conservative Saudi kingdom recently. While rights groups have petitioned the government for laws to protect children from such marriages, the kingdom's top cleric has said that it's OK for girls as young as 10 to wed.

"It is incorrect to say that it's not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger," Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom's grand mufti, said in January, according to the regional Al-Hayat newspaper. "A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she's too young are wrong, and they are being unfair to her."

Al-Sheikh reportedly made the remarks when he was asked during a lecture about parents forcing their underage daughters to marry.

"We hear a lot in the media about the marriage of underage girls," he said, according to the newspaper. "We should know that sharia law has not brought injustice to women."

Sharia law is Islamic law, and Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism.

Wajeha al-Huwaider, co-founder of the Society of Defending Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia, said that achieving human rights in the kingdom means standing against those who want to "keep us backward and in the dark ages."

She said the marriages cause girls to "lose their sense of security and safety. Also, it destroys their feeling of being loved and nurtured. It causes them a lifetime of psychological problems and severe depression."

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