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Speech written by Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim

Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim is a Saudi human rights lawyer receiving Human Rights Watch’s Human Rights Defender 2008 award in London, UK, November 11, 2008.

This speech represents al-Lahim’s personal views.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First, I would like to thank my wife Fatimah al-Lahim who has stood beside me in the most difficult circumstances, and who has helped me through it all. She was, and continues to be, the person who supports me the most on this path of mine.

I would also like to thank my children, Hessah and Khalid. Having them has made me hope for a future in which coming generations will cherish freedom and believe in great human values.

I would also like to express my gratitude to Human Rights Watch for believing in me and honoring me. This award is an acknowledgement of the hundreds of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. It is also a recognition of the work of brave writers who have spoken against Islamist extremists and their calls for violence. Such writers have undertaken to expose those extremists and their false claims to the Saudi society. It is also an honor given to the great national figures who have sacrificed their freedom and their lives for the sake of their country and its people.

Tonight, it is my utmost pleasure to celebrate humanity with you all. It is also a reminder of the rights of humanss which are innate in all cultures and religions. This concept of humanity and human rights, ladies and gentleman, is a characteristic of the modern world in which we live.

Our assembly tonight confirms the universality of human rights, a cultural feature of our world. Individuals can no longer use their culture or religion as an excuse to violate and confiscate human rights. This achievement is in complete agreement with our nature. It has been further enforced by international conventions ensuring the sanctity of these rights, protecting them from violation under any circumstances.

Ladies and gentlemen, I come from Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, a country which used to revere humankind; a country that preserved and honored one's dignity and freedom. However, some of its citizens have strayed. These individuals have attempted to distort the purity of Islam; terrorizing people into silence, restricting their freedom, and permitting the slaughter of human beings by issuing fatwas (Islamic legal opinions) legitimizing such acts.

Fatwas declaring Muslims to be no longer Muslims are popular. The purpose of these religious opinions is to terrorize people into silence. These fatwas have led to armed terrorism, a phenomenon with which my country and other countries around the world are struggling. We are reminded of the victims of these fatwas, the many innocent men, women and children who have lost their lives in acts of terrorism. I would like to take this moment and pray for them.
I believe that confronting such fatwas and religious extremism is the duty of each and every one of us who believes in human rights. As mentioned earlier, these acts violate the right to life, free will and belief, and to freedom of speech. Tonight, I would like to salute all the brave writers in my country and all over the world who defend human rights and confront this dangerous epidemic which hinders progress and legitimizes tyranny.

During the rule of King Abdullah Al Sa’ud, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has witnessed a steady progress in freedom of speech in the local media. King Abdullah believes that the new generation is an investment. By allowing constructive criticism, the new generation has become more open and exposed to the world. Consequently, the level of awareness of legal rights has increased in a society that was fairly closed off from the world and largely oblivious of legal values. Despite the fact that such values have been resisted and opposed by religious figures, gradually they have become firmly established in our society. As a result, very sensitive issues are now discussed in the local media, in a patriotic manner that is sincere and void of personal or political interests.

When it comes to legislation—a cornerstone of any action in protecting human rights—I can honestly say that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a new legal era. It is passing laws directly related to human rights, and new judicial laws in particular. These laws will restructure the judicial institutions of Saudi Arabia, support the independence of the judiciary, and amend areas of weakness. Furthermore, legislative committees in Saudi Arabia are still working on drafting many bold laws which will in turn improve the situation of human rights in the kingdom. This is all happening at an exceptional time in our nation's history, where our political leadership is determined to be open to the world and active in shaping its values and ideals.

My aim in the future is to continue to provide pro bono services to the underprivileged. My hope is to offer 1,500 hours of free services on a yearly basis to all cases related to human rights violations. To a large degree, my focus will be on women because of the social restrictions enforced upon them in my country.

I hope that this step will firmly establish legal concepts in different social spheres and guarantee fair trials standards in Saudi judicial institutions. I also hope that my work will motivate my fellow lawyers to help victims of human rights violations by providing professional legal services to them.

Many thanks to you and I wish you the best of luck and success in serving humanity.

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