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Saudi rape victim's lawyer: Case may change judicial system

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  • Attorney: What we're going through will lead to a more modern judicial system
  • Saudi Justice Ministry: Lawyer showed disrespectful behavior toward the court
  • Woman convicted of violating law by not having a male guardian with her
  • Court more than doubled woman's original sentence to 200 lashes
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(CNN) -- The lawyer representing a Saudi rape victim whose treatment has drawn worldwide criticism predicted Wednesday the controversy may help reform the Saudi judicial system.

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Human rights groups want Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to drop charges against the rape victim.

"I believe the kingdom is going through a reformist period and I believe what we're going through will lead to a more modern judicial system that all citizens can enjoy," Abdulrahman al-Lahim told Octavia Nasr, CNN's senior Arab affairs editor, in a telephone interview.

"I'm confident that this line of thought will vanish one day, and indeed the country will be reborn."

In March 2006, when his client was 18 and engaged to be married, she and an unrelated man were abducted from a mall in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, and she was raped by seven men.

In October, the men were convicted and sentenced to two to nine years in prison.

But the rape victim was also convicted -- for violating the kingdom's Islamic law by not having a male guardian with her at the mall.

The man tried to blame his client for insisting on meeting him that day, Al-Lahim said. It is illegal for a woman to meet with an unrelated male under Saudi's Islamic law.

The woman was sentenced to 90 lashes and -- when she appealed -- the sentence was more than doubled to 200 lashes and six months in prison.

Her lawyer accused the head judge in the three-judge panel of having been against his client from the beginning, and he criticized the judge's position that the victim and the rapists appear in the same courtroom.

"Based on my humanistic and professional ethics, I strongly rejected that stance," al-Lahim said. "How can she stand next to these people while suffering further emotional and physical harm? The judge took my objection personally and raised the issue to the Ministry of Justice to revoke my license."

Al-Lahim said he feels the Saudi government is penalizing him for trying to help the woman get justice, including failing to reinstate his law license.

He said it was revoked last week by a judge in the Qatif General Court seeking to punish him for speaking to the Saudi-controlled news media about the incident and other controversial cases.

"I think that they want to take revenge," he said. "I don't understand the sensitivity about media attention. By Saudi law, court sessions should be open to the public."

The judges may have increased his client's original sentence because she hired him, "a controversial lawyer," Al-Lahim said.

Al-Lahim vowed to "fight till the end" to get back his license, "to work again, and help create a new generation of lawyers that will continue on this path." Video Watch al-Lahim say being a lawyer is a dream for him »

The case has provoked outrage in the West and has cast light on the treatment of women under Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic law.

The Saudi Justice Ministry -- apparently stung by international media scrutiny -- issued a "clarification" Tuesday.

It acknowledged that al-Lahim is no longer on the case, saying he was punished by a disciplinary committee for lawyers because he "exhibited disrespectful behavior toward the court, objected to the rule of law and showed ignorance concerning court instructions and regulations."

The ministry also said it welcomed constructive criticism and said the parties' rights were preserved in the judicial process.

"We would like to state that the system has ensured them the right to object to the ruling and to request an appeal, without resorting to sensationalism through the media that may not be fair or may not grant anyone any rights, and instead may negatively affect all the other parties involved in the case," the statement said.

The case was handled through normal court procedures, and the woman, her male companion and the rapists all agreed in court to the sentences meted out, the statement said.

Under Saudi law, women are subject to numerous restrictions, including a strict dress code, a prohibition against driving and a requirement they get a man's permission to travel or have surgery.

Still, the government's handling of the matter has sparked anger among human rights groups.

"Barring the lawyer from representing the victim in court is almost equivalent to the rape crime itself," said Fawzeyah al-Oyouni, founding member of the newly formed Saudi Association for the Defense of Women's Rights.

The woman and the man were attacked after they met so she could retrieve an old photograph of herself from him, according to al-Lahim.

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Citing phone records from the police investigation, al-Lahim said the man was trying to blackmail his client. He noted the photo she was seeking to retrieve was innocuous.

Al-Lahim has been ordered to attend a disciplinary hearing next month at the Ministry of Justice, where he faces a possible three-year suspension and disbarment, according to Human Rights Watch. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Saad Abedine, Octavia Nasr and Mohammed Jamjoom contributed to this report.

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