Saudi Super Lawyer Sues Religious Police

One prominent turning point came in 2002 when more than a dozen girls died in a school fire after religious police forced them back into the building. Agents sent the girls into the blaze because they ran out without the obligatory black robe, known as an abaya. Five years later the beating death of Al Hurayzi, one of the cases Al Lahim is handling, has become another flashpoint of discontent with the religious police and their tactics.

"If you are religious that doesn't mean you can violate the rights of others. This is a simple message," Al Lahim told ABC News. "But until now it seems they haven't read this message, they are still practicing illegal acts in an arrogant way."

"People have been afraid of the religious police in Saudi Arabia, but our case is helping marginalize this dragon, this paper tiger."

Al Lahim has handled a series of Saudi Arabia's best known human rights cases. In October 2006 he defended a female rape victim who was sentenced to 90 lashings for being in a car with a man when the two were assaulted by a gang.

In November 2007, the case of that woman known as the "Qatif Girl," after the town she is from, caused a public outcry and caught international attention when her sentence was more than doubled for talking to the media. She later received a pardon from the country's leader, King Abdullah.

"The Qatif case moved many opinions in the Saudi community," Al Lahim told ABC News. "It broke the idea that the judges don't make mistakes."

Samar Fatany, a writer and radio host in Jeddah, is impressed with Al Lahim's willingness to challenge the status quo.

"He's one of the brave ones, he has a lot of public support," Fatany told ABC News.

"There's a great culture of fear," she said about the religious police. "They've earned a reputation of not being civil, of harassing people. Nobody trusts them."

Practicing Law Without Laws

Al Lahim works within a legal system that has no codified penal code. Saudi Arabia has no written criminal law aside from the Koran, so a judge's interpretation decides what constitutes a crime and its appropriate punishment.

In 2002 Saudi Arabia enacted a code of criminal procedure, addressing an individual's rights upon arrest and through trial. While activists say enforcement of those rights remains spotty, the rules give Al Lahim enough of a basis to defend his clients in court.

"By citing those rights repeatedly and insisting they be applied, Al Lahim is trying to bring the law into the courtroom, trying to take away from the arbitrary powers of judges," said Wilcke of Human Rights Watch.

Al Lahim says the Kingdom's burgeoning legal system faces a shortage of attorneys. In Saudi Arabia, a country of 25 million people, there are roughly 800 judges and several thousand lawyers. Most attorneys practice commercial law exclusively.

"If you're accused of theft or murder or embezzlement you will have a hard time finding a lawyer who can defend you in court," said Wilcke.

There is a growing consensus on the need for codified criminal law in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah first announced a set of judicial reforms in 2005, and some steps have been implemented, such as reorganization of the courts and broader training of judges.

There has also been some regulation of the religious police; since 2006 all agents have worn identifying badges and can only make arrests when accompanied by a regular policeman.

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