Saudi Arabia: call for 'gang rape' lawyer to be spared punishment

Amnesty International has today called for disciplinary measures against a Saudi Arabian lawyer who has defended a rape victim in the country to be dropped.

Abdul Rahman al-Lahem has been summoned to appear before a disciplinary committee tomorrow (5 December) for publicly criticising his client’s unfair treatment by the judiciary.

The woman concerned, known as the “al-Qatif Girl”, was tried in November 2006 together with a male companion who was accompanying her when she was attacked and gang-raped by seven men. The woman received a six-month prison sentence and still faces the prospect of 200 lashes.

She and her male companion were both originally sentenced to 90 lashes each for a khilwa offence - being alone in the company of a member of the opposite sex who is not a close relative. On appeal, the rape victim’s sentence, and that of her male companion, was increased to 200 lashes and six months in prison. Meanwhile, the gang rape perpetrators were eventually given sentences of two to nine years, in addition to flogging.

Amnesty International believes that the criminalisation of khilwa is inconsistent with international human rights standards, in particular, an individual’s right to privacy, and that the case against the woman in this case and her male companion should be declared null and void. The approach taken by the Ministry of Justice suggests that it effectively considers that the young woman brought the rape upon herself by meeting her companion.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Programme Director Malcolm Smart said:

"It is totally unacceptable that Abdul Rahman al-Lahem is facing possible suspension or dismissal from the legal profession simply because of his defence of a young female victim of gang rape.

“He should be allowed to perform all of his professional duties without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference."

After the woman was initially sentenced in November 2006, Mr Al-Lahem criticised the court’s decision to treat her as an offender rather than a victim and was reported as saying that the case “sums up the major problems that the Saudi Arabian judiciary faces.”

According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Justice on 21 November 2007, Mr Al-Lahem has been accused of “insulting the Supreme Judicial Council and disobeying the rules and regulations” of the judiciary, which could lead to his being suspended or disbarred from the legal profession. Such punishment would amount to a gross violation of international standards protecting the integrity of the legal profession.

The trial court that first heard the case is reported to have called for the withdrawal of Mr Al-Lahem’s licence to practise law after he criticised its treatment of his client but it is unclear whether this is what led to the disciplinary process that has now been invoked against him.

Malcolm Smart added:

"These new measures are yet another demonstration of the lack of the independence of the judiciary in Saudi Arabia, a concern which Amnesty International has repeatedly expressed. The whole case reflects the inconsistencies of the judicial system, particularly its in-built prejudice against Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights, and could deter other lawyers from defending Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights victims of rape or other sexual violence."

Background
Amnesty International’s concern that Abdul Rahman al-Lahem may be penalised for carrying out his professional duties as a lawyer is heightened by the nature of the disciplinary process. This is controlled by the Ministry of Justice, assisted by the Public Prosecution, part of the Interior Ministry, and its independence and impartiality is in question.

Under the Saudi Code of Law Practice of 2001, the Ministry of Justice controls the legal profession as the statutory authority for issuing licences and disciplining lawyers. Mr Al-Lahem is reported to have been charged by the Public Prosecutor and will appear before a three-member committee set up by the Minister of Justice to hear his case. He is entitled to have the assistance of a defence lawyer. Under the CLP the disciplinary committee’s decision can be appealed to the Board of Grievances, the highest administrative appeal court in the justice system in Saudi Arabia.

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