Saudi Arabia to set up judge training centres

General Court building in Riyadh (2005) Hundreds of judges are reported to have signed two open letters to King Abdullah criticising the plan

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Saudi Arabia is to set up training centres for judges to improve their "efficiency and performance".

The Gulf kingdom's judges are clerics who use a strict interpretation of Islamic law to rule on all matters.

They are empowered to reach verdicts without reference to precedence, but critics say that leads to inconsistency and a lack of transparency.

Conservatives have resisted reform, viewing it as a threat to the country's religious and cultural identity.

'Westernising stench'

A cabinet statement issued on Tuesday said that that the new training centres would be run by the justice ministry, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

Training would focus on the "efficiency and performance" of judges and other officials, it added.

Under the current judicial system, Sharia is the only applicable law both for criminal and personal status cases in the two courts of first instance.

As Sharia is not codified, judges are free to interpret the Koran and the Sunnah - the practice and examples of the Prophet Muhammad's life - as they see fit, within general Islamic legal doctrines.

Human rights groups complain that this leads to inconsistent and questionable decisions, and businesses say it discourages investors.

Earlier this year, local newspapers reported that hundreds of judges had signed two open letters to King Abdullah criticising the plan for training centres. One criticised the "Westernising stench" of the idea.

Conservatives also opposed a ruling made earlier this month which removed the requirement for a male relative to identify Saudi females in court. The change made it harder for men to stop female relatives from testifying, especially if they were the accused party.

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