Saudi Super Lawyer Sues Religious Police

"We talk about a new Saudi Arabia during King Abdullah's term, it includes restructuring the judiciary system." Al Lahim told ABC News.

"Not much has changed yet, but now there are new foundations and deep changes in these foundations. I won't say that we've reached the top, but we are walking stably."

Al Lahim says his current emphasis is on women's rights, with the stated goals of starting a foundation for free legal aid to indigent clients.

"We are mainly concentrating on female victims for the time because we think women here don't have enough legal support," Al Lahim said.

Paying a Personal Price for Human Rights

Al Lahim has been repeatedly punished for his work. He was arrested for talking to the media during his defense of jailed reform advocates in 2004, but was pardoned by King Abdullah. He was later temporarily stripped of his law license and subject to a four-year travel ban that bars him from leaving the country through March 2009.

"Of course there are difficulties in a profession like this in Saudi Arabia," said Al Lahim. "But the legal profession is at its core about human rights, so this pushes you to continue despite of all the difficulties."

The American Bar Association recognized Al Lahim's personal sacrifice, saying in its award letter that he is among those lawyers "who have suffered persecution as a result of their professional activities…We are honoring your bravery for standing up to injustice."

Despite the considerable pressure he's received -- some from people who believe he should push quietly, fitting the country's habit of slow, small changes -- Al Lahim is widely admired among human rights advocates and many Saudis, both for the direct results of his work and for shifting public expectations of justice and accountability.

"The few brave people who have really put their name on the line, who say the time for reform in Saudi Arabia is now, I have a lot of respect for them and I think we're slowly going to see the fruits of their effort," said May Dabbagh, a researcher with the Harvard-affiliated Dubai School of Government.

Al Lahim says he gets regular encouragement from the Saudi public.

"There is a support from people, especially from the new generation in the Saudi Arabia that values human rights. We get calls and e-mails from them, supporting us," Al Lahim told ABC News.

"I think there is a new Saudi Arabia being born."

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