ICC NOTE: Although this is not focused on Christians, human rights cases such as this one show the brutality of sharia justice. How much worse is this kind of justice system for Christians???
Saudi Lawyer Takes On
Rights Cases Used To Press for Change
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.”
Lahem’s involvement in any case has come to mean trouble, or at least intense scrutiny, for judges across the kingdom.
He took the case of a high school chemistry teacher, Mohammad al-Harbi, who was sentenced last year to 40 months in prison and 750 lashes for “trying to sow doubt” among his students by speaking positively about Judaism and Christianity. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz pardoned him.
Another client, Rabbah al-Quwai’i, a journalist, was arrested this year for “harboring destructive thoughts” and accused of promoting homosexuality by commenting on Internet forums that it was a genetic predisposition. The case was thrown out of court.
Two factors have worked in Lahem’s favor: a reform-minded king and, since Abdullah took control of the country several years ago, a freer press that has helped publicize the lawyer’s cases. But Lahem is still up against a deeply traditional justice system and widespread public ignorance about human rights and the rule of law.
Civil rights groups and independent human rights organizations are banned here, and the first of two government-appointed human rights committees was set up only in 2004. Previously, disputes and grievances were addressed by provincial governors at weekly salons or settled out of court by mediators. The governors, mainly princes from the ruling al-Saud family, sometimes set up committees to look into complaints.
Despite laws in place since 2002 protecting suspects’ rights to legal counsel and requiring public trials, most trials are held in secret, without defense lawyers.
Defendants often ask Lahem to help after they have gone to court without an attorney and verdicts have been pronounced.
He is currently representing Mansour al-Timani and his wife, Fatima, a couple with two children who suddenly found themselves forcibly divorced. The 34-year-old wife’s half brothers sued to void the marriage, claiming that the husband had hidden his inferior tribal lineage. The judge ruled in their favor.
Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed self-guardianship and need the approval of a close male relative to travel or marry.
After the marriage was declared void, the couple’s cohabitation became illegal, and police took Fatima from their home. She was given the choice of living with her brothers, moving to a women’s shelter or going to prison. She told Lahem she did not feel she would be out of her brothers’ reach in a shelter and has been in prison with her year-old son since July.
Lahem walks a fine line between two often contradictory ideals — Islamic law and international covenants. He said he was keenly aware that to make any headway, he must use the system, not fight outside it. Although he’s a staunch feminist, he said, he chose not to tackle the issue of women’s right to self-guardianship, not only because it is illegal here, but also because it is widely accepted.
In dozens of television and newspaper interviews and talks across the country, Lahem has emphasized that the verdict against Fatima al-Timani is racist and discriminatory and therefore contrary to Islam’s egalitarian principles. It is also illegal, he said, because the kingdom has signed international treaties against racial discrimination.
His vocal and public defense of his clients, open attacks on the judiciary and regular newspaper columns condemning religious extremism have made him hugely unpopular with many Saudis.
To them, Lahem is part of a Western onslaught against their Islamic values. Conservatives believe that all laws should be derived from God-given sharia, and not man-made international agreements, including the human rights treaties that Lahem endorses.
His detractors have accused him of being an apostate, an infidel and a “lawyer of homosexuals” because of his defense of Quwai’i. But what could most undercut Lahem’s effectiveness is the charge that he seeks to extricate Islam from the legal system, something few people in this conservative country, birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest shrines, would accept.
Asked whether he advocates a separation of religion and state, Lahem does not answer directly. “I believe, first and foremost, in human rights and rule of law,” he said. “That should be above all else.”
Sharia is “not always” compatible with human rights, he finally said. “Some rulings, like lashes, violate international conventions.”
But what makes him such a formidable foe in the courtroom is his own strong background in sharia.
Until the late 1990s, Lahem — who holds a degree in sharia — was an Arabic teacher and an activist with the conservative Islamic Sahwa movement. Like most Sahwa adherents, he wore a long traditional white robe and let his beard grow long and scruffy, considered signs of piety.