The Australian prisoner in Saudi Arabia...
A modern-day horror story...
At first glance Jennifer Birrell is a free woman living a privileged life in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
"It's a weird prison," she concedes. "A big house with a pool and a nice new car, all behind massive concrete walls that no one can see inside of. That's the prison. So I live here with my maid and my kids and my driver."
But here the 33-year-old Muslim convert is trapped, unable to obtain an exit visa to return to Australia, and with no right to visit her husband, Mohammed Ahmed Nagi, in jail. Also 33, he has been held in the Malaz prison for more than 15 months. He has another 21 months to serve. He has endured 200 lashes, 50 at a time, and will be subjected to 100 more.
The couple's hellish predicament – detailed in Birrell's pleading letter to the Saudi king – rests on several flimsy pieces of paper, all wielded by her abusive former husband. This is the Yemeni man she married in Australia in 1998 and who fathered three of her children, all Australian citizens. They moved to Saudi Arabia in 2004, but she fled from him two years and three months ago, fearing for her life, after he allegedly threatened to kill her and bashed her three times with a candle stick, caving in her forehead.
Among his pieces of paper was an old mobile phone bill. He had her account redirected to him while they were separated, and he took the bill to police in July last year, five months after he granted her a divorce in court.
By now Birrell's colleague Mohammed Nagi had offered to become her guardian, or mahram. In accordance with Muslim custom, he had asked her father's permission and they married in June last year, in accordance with Sharia law, at the Egyptian embassy in Riyadh. Their marriage certificate was legalised in the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Saudi Ministry of Justice. After all, the law in the kingdom requires a woman have a male guardian.
But that phone bill? It showed that Birrell, after separating from her former husband, called Nagi almost daily for two months. That is not surprising, she says. She had been the director of English at Al-Yamamah University, where she managed more than 50 English teachers from around the western world. Nagi was her finance manager. She needed to consult him often in day-to-day business. The calls rarely lasted more than two minutes, she says.
Nevertheless, the phone bill – without the details of a single conversation – was enough to convince a judge that Nagi was guilty of takbeeb, "destruction of the family". Nagi's lawyer was forbidden from giving evidence, Birrell says. She was not allowed to testify about the abuse she suffered in her previous marriage.
"This issue could easily be settled if the judge from the criminal court would speak to the judge in the family court, where my ex-husband confessed to his abuse with no shame, as though it was his right," Birrell said.
In August last year, nearly two months after his wedding, Nagi was sentenced to three years' jail and the 300 lashes, essentially for being a home wrecker. "With no proof – only my ex-husband's malicious false claim," Birrell says.
Her former husband retains another critical piece of paper. In March last year, the month after their formal divorce, he illegally renewed on his residence permit his sponsorship of her – falsely stating they were still married. He held the passports of Birrell and her eldest daughter, now 11.
The family court judge ordered in February last year that the former husband transfer this sponsorship to her employer. He did not comply and the judge subsequently ordered him to transfer her sponsorship within 10 days or risk going to jail. The former husband ignored that order too, and no action has been taken against him.
The Australian embassy wrote to the former husband in April last year, demanding that he return his former wife's passport. That request, too, has been ignored.
Birrell got a new passport, but cannot get a visa to leave Saudi Arabia without the approval of the man who, on paper, is still her nominated sponsor – her former husband. The embassy has been unable to advance her case.
She also begged for protection from the Governor of Riyadh, who she says asked police to arrest her former husband over his failure to transfer her sponsorship – but again nothing happened. And she has taken her appeal to the highest authority, seeking the mercy, help and protection of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud. She is hopeful of a response.