Saudi Super Lawyer Sues Religious Police

In the Riyadh law office of Abdulrahman Al Lahim hangs a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. -- a perhaps lofty, but appropriate role model. If there is a civil rights movement in Saudi Arabia, Al Lahim is at its core, waging a revolution in the courtroom.

Al Lahim, a young attorney who has tackled some of Saudi Arabia's most important human rights cases, is doing the unprecedented: he is suing the religious police, agents of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, who have long been considered off-limits despite ongoing complaints of their abuse of power.

"I want to transfer the message that no one is above the law," Al Lahim told ABC News.

Al Lahim has two actions pending against the commission -- a case alleging the arbitrary arrest of a woman and her daughter in 2004, and another accusing police of beating a man to death in 2007. The cases are widely believed to be the first in which religious police could be held accountable for their methods.

After the 2007 beating death of Suleiman Al Hurayzi, Al Lahim was the only attorney in Saudi Arabia who stepped up to take the case. Religious police were initially found not guilty of Al Hurayzi's death, but Al Lahim filed an appeal. He won a retrial on the basis of flaws in the original trial. The case is ongoing.

The earlier suit, also ongoing and known as the "Um Faysal" case, is believed to be the first time religious police have been brought to court. The complaint in that case states that two agents arrested a woman and her daughter, seized their car and drove them around Riyadh until they had a traffic accident.

"They didn't have anything against her. It was unfair procedure on behalf of the religious police," Al Lahim told ABC News.

Al Lahim's clients sued the religious police for arbitrary arrest and false deprivation of liberties, losing before an Islamic court but appealing to an administrative court for compensation, psychological harm and damages to the woman's car.

"These cases are a landmark," said Christoph Wilcke, an expert on the Saudi justice system for Human Rights Watch who worked with Al Lahim. "Slowly, slowly the religious police are facing the prospect of answering questions in the courtroom, a completely novel idea for them."

Human Rights Watch is honoring Al Lahim with its "Human Rights Defender of the Year" award in November. Al Lahim also received the American Bar Association's International Human Rights Lawyer Award last month.

Enforcing Morality Through Confrontation

The religious police, who have law enforcement power, serve the regulators of Muslim morality in Saudi Arabia. Their raids on un-Islamic behavior, as defined by a strict interpretation of Muslim law, use tactics that include aggressive verbal and physical confrontation.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital and part of its conservative heartland, religious police are often seen patrolling shopping malls and public areas. Marked by their long beards and shirts that fall just below the knee, the religious police are productive in their patrols; Human Rights Watch estimates that Saudi Arabia's 5,000 religious police officers plus 5,000 volunteers carried out 400,000 arrests in 2005.

Lawyers and activists say that while religious police have created a culture of fear in Saudi Arabia, they have faced growing public opposition over the past few years.

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