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Saudi rape lawyer threatened

  • Story Highlights
  • Al-Lahem: "I belong to a new generation of lawyers"
  • Attorney's client is a rape victim sentenced to 200 lashes, six months in prison
  • Lawyer singles out chief judge, says he fails to grasp world is changing
  • Al-Lahem says woman's case has elicited calls for his beheading
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(CNN) -- The Saudi lawyer who represented a victim of gang rape faces a disciplinary hearing Wednesday for "insulting the Supreme Judicial Council and disobeying the rules and regulations" of the judiciary.

Abdul Rahman al-Lahem said the rape case had elicited a fierce response, including calls for his beheading.

"These opinions don't scare me, but they make me feel a disappointment that there are people who think this way.

"I wish that those who oppose me could engage in a direct dialogue instead of calling for violence. Unfortunately, they are still stuck in a culture of closed-mindedness."

Al-Lahem, who has two daughters, predicted he would have his revoked license to practice law reinstated on Wednesday and said he would represent the Saudi woman again. The hearing has the power to disbar him.

"I believe in the system and the law, and I believe I didn't do anything wrong," Abdul Rahman al-Lahem told CNN in a telephone interview from Riyadh on Tuesday.

The Saudi judge who revoked al-Lahem's license last month did so to punish him for speaking to the media about his client, al-Lahem said.

His client is a teenage rape victim who was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison for violating the kingdom's strict Islamic law by being alone with an unrelated man before the rape.

The attacks took place in Qatif in March 2006 when the woman was 18 and engaged to be married.

Her seven rapists were sentenced to between two to nine years in prison.

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

In challenging his possible suspension and disbarment, the 36-year-old attorney said he has received threats on his life from the religious right. But the foreign minister's call for a review of the case -- joined by "many voices" of al-Lahem's generation, as he put it -- have been encouraging, he added.

"Young people in all fields are asking for reform, in the judicial system, media and elsewhere," he said. "I belong to a new generation of lawyers who know the law and know how to challenge judges about the law."

He said his opponents' influence is on the wane. "They believe that any criticism of the judiciary system is a direct criticism of the Islamic Sharia law, and they consider that any criticism is a criticism of religion itself," he said.

Al-Lahem singled out the chief judge in the Qatif Court's panel of three judges who revoked his license as being among those who fail to grasp that the world is changing.

"He's used to lawyers who accept everything he says without questioning. I told him 'You misunderstood the law, your honor' and he couldn't take that."

Al-Lahem said that, from the early 1990s until a few years ago, he was a religious fanatic. But he said he rejected extremism during law school and joined with the reformists, accepting human rights cases on a pro bono basis in addition to the commercial work that pays his bills.

The rape victim's husband, who has been outspoken in her defense, moved al-Lahem to accept her case, he said. "I would be disgraced if I sit back and don't support these people who need me," he said.

Al-Lahem described the woman's case as unusual only in the attention it has garnered, attention he welcomes.

"One such case is better than thousands of speeches, lectures and theoretical articles," he said. Such cases "speak on behalf of the street and reached out to the ordinary people. This is my main reason for defending them."

Though traditionalist judges and conservative lawyers accuse him of harming the kingdom's image by talking to the media, young people and reformists have offered their support, especially over the Internet, "where people are free to express their views," al-Lahem said.

"The world is now a small village," he said. "What is happening in a small room can be known within seconds to the whole world."

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This is not the lawyer's first challenge to Saudi ways. He also represented a professor accused of holding views that offended Islam. "I defended him, and the king personally intervened" on his behalf, al-Lahem said.

In another case, he sued the religious police, also known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, after they kidnapped a woman and beat her, "and then we proved that she was innocent." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Octavia Nasr contributed to this story.

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