19 November 2008


The Saudi authorities have banned a crusading defence attorney from travelling abroad to receive Human Rights Watch's 2008 Human Rights Defenders Award.

Abdul-Rahman al-Lahim was due to be honoured in November in London, Paris and Geneva with the award for his fight for the rights of Saudi citizens against arbitrary and unjust rulings.
Al-Lahim gained worldwide attention for defending a woman from Qatif who was sentenced in November 2006 to several months in prison and 90 lashes after being gang-raped. Her punishment was for an act that preceded the rape: being alone in a car with a man who was not related to her, which is illegal in Saudi Arabia. An appeals court increased the woman's sentence to 200 lashings and six months in jail. In December 2007, King Abdullah set aside the woman's sentence after the case drew international criticism.
Al-Lahim "is at the forefront of the struggle to put into effect the kind of judicial reforms that King Abdullah has announced," said Human Rights Watch.

Unable to attend the ceremony in London on 11 November, al-Lahim prepared remarks that were read at the event: "This award is an acknowledgement of the hundreds of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia," he said. "It is also a recognition of the work of brave writers who have spoken against Islamist extremists and their calls for violence."

Four other activists have been honoured with the Human Rights Defender award.

Sri Lankan rights defender Sunila Abeysekera won for the two decades she has spent working as an activist amid Sri Lanka's civil war, exposing serious abuses by government security forces and the Tamil Tigers.

Mathilde Muhindo works to support rape victims and to stop the use of rape as a weapon of war in Democratic Republic of Congo.

Umida Niazova, an Uzbek journalist, continues to speak out against the government's abuses, despite being convicted for covering the 2005 massacre in Andijan, where troops killed hundreds of unarmed protesters.

Bo Kyi spent more than seven years in prison for his political activism since the pro-democracy riots in Burma in 1988. Upon release from jail, he co-founded the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Mae Sot, Thailand. He said upon accepting his award in London, "We have a way to communicate with the prisoners and get their stories out. I cannot tell you how we do this. I do not want the Burmese regime to find out. But I can tell you that these stories fill the pages of our reports and those of Human Rights Watch ... Over time, the stories of these prisoners generate pressure on the international community to take a stand."

The awards are being presented at a series of dinners across North America and Europe in November.

For more information on the 2008 Human Rights Watch honourees, see: http://tinyurl.com/5a7jfjFor details on the campaign to lift al-Lahim's travel ban, see: http://tinyurl.com/57mn6cFor Bo Kyi's acceptance, see George Packer's blog on "The New Yorker": http://tinyurl.com/5m8h9m
(19 November 2008)

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