For Immediate Release
Saudi Arabia: Lift Travel Ban on Saudi Rights Lawyer
Human Rights Watch Gives Award to Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim
NEW YORK - The Saudi government should immediately lift a travel ban on Saudi
human rights lawyer Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, a winner of the 2008 Human
Rights Defender award, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights
Watch also announced four other winners of the 2008 award, courageous
individuals working for justice and human rights from Uzbekistan,
Burma, Sri Lanka, and Democratic Republic of Congo.
"Al-Lahim stands for justice and the rule of law in Saudi Arabia," said
Christoph Wilcke, senior researcher on Saudi Arabia at Human Rights
Watch. "Barring al-Lahim from travel only highlights the severe and
arbitrary limits to basic freedoms and fairness in the kingdom."
Human Rights Watch called on Saudi Interior Minister
Prince Nayef bin Abd al-‘Aziz to immediately lift the government's ban
on foreign travel for al-Lahim so that he can attend the award
ceremonies in London, Paris, and Geneva in November 2008. The ministry
imposed the travel ban on al-Lahim in 2004 in connection with his calls
for peaceful reform.
In November 2006, Dr. Ahmad Salim, the secretary-general
of the Ministry of Interior, promised Human Rights Watch to look into
the reasons for the travel ban, but with no results. The Saudi Human
Rights Commission, a government body, met with Prince Nayef in 2007 in
an effort to get the travel ban on al-Lahim removed, but the
restriction remains in place. In a letter to King Abdullah,
Human Rights Watch emphasized that bans on foreign travel against
al-Lahim and 21 other reform activists and public critics of government
policies violates Saudi Arabia's obligations under international law.
Al-Lahim came to prominence in Saudi Arabia and the wider
region when he represented the "Girl of Qatif" in her appeal against a
sentence of 90 lashes for having in 2006 illegally "mingled" with an
unrelated man in a car, before a gang of seven men set upon her and the
unrelated man and raped them both. After al-Lahim spoke out about the injustice of punishing the victim,
the appeals court raised her sentence to 200 lashes and six months in
prison and confiscated his law license. Al-Lahim has stood firmly in
support of the woman while senior clerics, judges, and the Ministry of
Justice besmirched the young woman's reputation and others called him a
"traitor to the country." In December 2007, King Abdullah set aside the
sentences of the woman and man.
In March 2004, Saudi authorities arrested al-Lahim, Ali
al-Dumaini, Matrook al-Faleh, Abdullah al-Hamid and eight other
activists for having signed and circulated petitions calling for
reform. Al-Lahim, who was released without charge, became the lead
defense lawyer for the trial against al-Dumaini, al-Hamid, and al-Faleh
that started in August 2004. In November 2004, the authorities
rearrested al-Lahim after he stated on Al Jazeera satellite television
that he believed his clients to be innocent. A court in May 2005
sentenced al-Dumaini, al-Hamid, and al-Faleh respectively to nine,
seven, and six years in prison. Al-Lahim remained in solitary
confinement in al-Ha'ir political prison until King Abdullah pardoned
and released all four just days after acceding to the throne in August
2005. The other activists arrested in March 2004 also remain banned
from foreign travel.
Al-Lahim quickly returned to human rights legal advocacy,
defending two teachers in court against charges of blasphemy introduced
by their colleagues and students who disapproved of their modern,
unorthodox teaching methods. King Abdullah pardoned both teachers.
Al-Lahim was the first lawyer to bring a criminal case
against Saudi Arabia's religious police in a court of law. In 2005, he
represented a woman named Umm Faisal in a case against the religious
police for wrongful deprivation of liberty. A court ruled that the
religious police are "not to be held accountable." Religious policemen
had stopped Faisal's car, forced her driver out, and drove Faisal and
her daughter at high speed through Riyadh before crashing the car,
taking away the women's mobile phones, locking them inside the car, and
fleeing on foot. Al-Lahim is now representing Faisal in her lawsuit
against the religious police for damages in that case in a civil court.
In 2007, al-Lahim also represented the family of Salman al-Huraisi
in appealing against a court's acquittal of two religious policemen who
had beaten al-Huraisi to death in May 2007. The appeal is pending.
Human Rights Watch has documented extensive shortcomings in the Saudi justice system, publishing a report on the topic in March 2008.
fights for the rights of his fellow citizens against arbitrary rulings
that have no basis in law," Wilcke said. "He is at the forefront of the
struggle for the kind of judicial reforms that King Abdullah has