Dr. Hayat Sindi is a Saudi Arabian medical scientist and a woman who has earned respect for extraordinary accomplishments in a country that denies women basic liberties. She is not only an award-winning scientist but one of the first female members of the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia. Ranked by Arabian Business as the 19th most influential Arab in the world and the ninth most influential Arab woman, it is not surprising that Harvard University has brought her to the country as a visiting scholar. However, a nasty lawsuit in King County has raised deeply disturbing allegations about Sindi’s efforts against women who she accuses of hacking her emails. According to counsel for one of those women, Sindi worked to have another woman flogged for writing on Facebook that she had had an affair with her husband. On the other side is Samia El-Moslimany, a women’s activist and photographer who lives in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, who is fighting to keep Sindi from forcing the disclosure of the women, who would face medieval Sharia justice in Saudi Arabia.
All of this began when El-Moslimany posted statements on social media in 2012 alleging that Sindi had had an affair with her husband. Sindi responded with a Saudi defamation case and, according to an affidavit submitted by El-Moslimany’s lawyer, she wanted El-Moslimany flogged. The effort backfired. A Saudi judge decided last year that El-Moslimany should spend four days in jail for the public defamation while Sindi should spend two months in jail for forming an illicit relationship with El-Moslimany’s husband. Neither has served their sentences.
Sindi however has continued to try to force disclosure of the names of the women commenting on the Internet under the claim that she was hacked. A King County Superior Court judge decided Friday not to sentence a Burien woman to jail or to levy a $500 fine for each day of withholding the names in light of the danger to these women.
Judge Mariane Spearman denied Sindi’s request to hold El-Moslimany in contempt of court because Sindi’s new lawyer could not specify which Facebook comments might be a basis for investigating any of the women.
The idea of a Harvard academic fighting to have women flogged for alleged defamation is deeply troubling. The fact that Saudi Sharia law allows for medieval justice does not excuse a demand for such justice over the exercise of free speech. Even if such speech was defamatory, it should not be a criminal matter subject to flogging. Whatever the truth of the adultery, it should not be relevant to Harvard or anyone else other than those involved in these families. However, flogging for posting matters on the Internet raises significant issues of due process and free speech.
Should Harvard be involved in such dispute when one of its faculty seeks to have women flogged under Sharia law or this is simply a private matter under the laws of another country?