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Dissident Watch: Abdul Rahman al-Lahim

by Nathaniel Rosenblatt
Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2008


A Saudi court's sentence of 200 lashes and six-months' imprisonment for a 19-year-old victim of gang rape, known only as the "Qatif girl," recently made headlines across the United States. Her story would never have come to outside attention without the efforts of her lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Lahim. A specialist in commercial law, the 36-year-old Saudi also takes human rights cases on a pro-bono basis.[1]

In his youth, Lahim was attracted to radical Islam and used his bachelor's degree in Islamic law to teach Arabic and work for As-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (the Islamic awakening),[2] a radical Islamist group critical of modernizing reforms in the kingdom.[3] It was not until he entered law school, Lahim says, that he shed their conservative ideology. In an interview with The Washington Post, he said that today he believes, "first and foremost, in human rights and rule of law."[4]

It is Lahim's past that makes his arguments for reforming Saudi law effective. He not only crafts effective legal arguments, but he also understands the conservative forces that hold the gavel.

As a result, Lahim is a marked man by Saudi Arabia's many reactionary forces. He has been arrested multiple times and is banned from traveling outside the kingdom. In 2004, he defended a high school chemistry teacher from a sentence of 40-months' imprisonment and 750 public lashes for speaking out against terrorism following a major terrorist attack on Saudi soil in May 2003. Only King Fahd's pardon, at the behest of his brother Crown Prince (now king) Abdullah, saved Lahim himself from imprisonment.[5]

On December 16, 2007, Saudi justice minister Abdullah bin Muhammad ash-Sheikh reported that the rape victim had received a royal pardon, but the Saudi courts may yet disbar Lahim for mounting such a vigorous defense. He currently awaits a hearing on his license to practice law, which has been suspended indefinitely.[6] However, these threats do not deter Lahim's efforts to change the Saudi judicial system. "I would be disgraced if I sit back and don't support these people who need me," he says.[7]

Despite the uncertainty of his future, Lahim remains upbeat about judicial reform in Saudi Arabia and suggests that the Qatif case "signals the death throes of the judiciary's old guard."[8] Saudi Arabia's road to a liberal judicial system is a long one, but with Abdul Rahman al-Lahim involved, Riyadh and Washington should pack for a lengthy trip.

Nathaniel Rosenblatt is a masters student in Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and a Middle East Quarterly intern.

[1], Dec. 5, 2007.
[2] The Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2006.
[3] The Economist, Nov. 13, 2007.
[4] The Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2006.
[5] Arab News (Jeddah), Nov. 14, 2005.
[6] The New York Times, Dec. 1, 2007.
[7], Dec. 5, 2007.
[8] Irfan al-Alawi and Stephen Schwartz, "The Crime of Qatif," The Daily Standard (Washington), Nov. 28, 2007.  

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