Saudi Lawyer Takes On Religious Court System

In his Riyadh office, human rights lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, right, talks to a man whose mother and sister are suing the country's religious police.
In his Riyadh office, human rights lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, right, talks to a man whose mother and sister are suing the country's religious police. "If we win this case," he said, "it will prove that nobody is above the rule of law." (By Faiza Saleh Ambah -- The Washington Post)

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By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 23, 2006

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi human rights lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem said he had been waiting years for a case like this: A woman and her daughter, both accused of promiscuity, were followed by the morals police as they left a private residence on the outskirts of the capital.

The police, who enforce adherence to Saudi Arabia's strict religious laws, beat up the women's driver and drove off with them locked in the back of the car. When the car broke down half an hour later, the officers abandoned them in the stranded vehicle.

The police assumed that the women had been visiting male friends. But the two had been at the home of female relatives. And unlike the thousands who had previously been intimidated into dropping their grievances, they insisted on taking their kidnappers to court. The case, which goes to trial next week, will give Lahem a chance to finally confront the powerful morals police, whom he considers the country's worst human rights offenders.

Lahem, a 35-year-old father of two, contends that the police oppress people in the name of religion and act as if the law doesn't apply to them. He wants to prove them wrong.

"If we win this case, it will have more of an impact than a dozen lectures or newspaper articles," he said. "It will send a powerful message to them, and to the public, who view men of the cloth as untouchable. It will prove that nobody is above the rule of law."

Over the past three years, Lahem has taken on the country's most controversial and sensitive cases and turned them into high-profile indictments of the justice system. He has been thrown in jail several times and banned from traveling abroad. But he continues to fight what he considers an antiquated judiciary, out of step with basic human rights.

Saudi Arabia's legal system is based primarily on the principles of sharia, laws derived from Islam's holy book, the Koran, and on the Sunna, examples from the life of its prophet, Muhammad. Saudi judges follow the official Wahhabi doctrine, the most puritanical and conservative interpretation of Islam, and have wide discretion in handing down sentences.

Lahem's latest client is a 19-year-old woman who was in a car with a male friend when she was kidnapped and gang-raped by seven men. In November, four of the men received prison sentences ranging from one to five years and 80 to 1,000 lashes, and three are awaiting sentencing.

The rape victim was sentenced to 90 lashes for having been with a male friend, which is illegal in this strictly segregated country.

Lahem, a slight, fragile-looking man, said he took the case because he was so incensed by that verdict.

"Instead of ordering post-traumatic treatment for her and making sure she's appointed a lawyer," he said, the judge "sentences this young girl, after what she's been through, to lashes." He shook his head.

"This could completely damage her," he said, fingering the handle of a gray cane he carries because of a pronounced limp caused by a fall when he was an infant. "This is not justice; this is jungle sharia."


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