RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 4, 2008 — -- 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.
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.
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.
"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."