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The Case The Saudis Can't Make

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page B01

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia

It's hard not to be intoxicated by the breeze of democracy wafting across the Middle East. An Arabian Spring, analysts call it, heralded by round-the-clock demonstrations in Lebanon, suffragists out on the streets in Kuwait, rare protests in Egypt, voting in Iraq and reform even here in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where limited municipal elections are being held this year. But just as I'm about to get carried away by the spirit of hope, my mind stops, does a U-turn and returns to three men -- two academics and a poet -- who've been behind bars in Saudi Arabia for a year. Their case, and not the ballot box, has become my barometer for real change in the kingdom.

Along with their lawyer, these men have forced a groundbreaking case onto the Saudi legal system, the power of which lies in its simplicity. They want the implementation of the rule of law in practice and not just in theory. Their tenacity could cost them their lives. But they take the risk because they know that without the rule of law this so-called Arabian Spring will prove to be as illusory as a desert mirage.

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With their insistence on an open trial and legal counsel -- rights granted but not exercised in this kingdom -- these veteran activists have laid bare the Saudi legal system. Last August, the three made history after insisting on and receiving an open arraignment in Riyadh on charges that included holding a public gathering and claiming that the judiciary was not independent. But since then the hearings have been closed, and the defendants have refused to cooperate. Their case now stands as a symbol of how far Saudi Arabia still has to go.

Signs of change came earlier to Saudi Arabia than to the rest of the Arab world. Following the Americanoverthrow of Saddam Hussein's government in neighboring Iraq, the United States was pushing democracy on the region in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. The Bush administration was putting pressure on the kingdom to combat extremism with political reforms. To top it off, there had been a spate of attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants trying to topple the pro-Western Saudi royal family. When I returned to my homeland last year after three years in the United States, I found no trace of the stagnant political atmosphere that had driven me to leave. Instead I found my native country in a state of flux, the atmosphere effervescent with hope.

About a dozen reformists from around the country, all of whom had been previously jailed for their activism, decided that this was a good time to pick up the mantle once more. Demands they had once discussed furtively, they now made openly in living rooms, in interviews on satellite television and in newspapers published overseas. They wanted a free press; they wanted a say in how the country was run; they wanted to know how the billions of dollars in oil revenues were being spent; and they wanted to combat corruption and set up human rights organizations. The Internet and satellite television had brought a new cohesiveness to their movement.

This is our Prague Spring, I thought, and I was happy to be in Saudi Arabia to watch it blossom.

Unaccustomed to the barrage of criticism, however, government officials told them to stop. In private meetings in January 2004, the reformists were told they could make demands, but only to the ruling Saud family.

Despite the warning, the following month about 100 men, many of whom had flown in for the occasion, met at a hotel near Riyadh airport. A week later security officials picked up 12 of the leading activists. Lawyer and human rights activist Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem appeared on al-Jazeera satellite television a day later, blasting their detentions as illegal. He too was jailed.

It was a bucket of winter on the Saudi Spring.

In jail the reformists were told they would be released on the condition that they sign statements pledging to direct their demands to official ears only and not talk to the press. One by one, they accepted the government's offer and went home.

All but three, that is. Not only did academics Matrouk al-Faleh and Abdullah al-Hamid and poet Ali al-Domeini refuse the conditional release, but they also raised the stakes by demanding a public trial and the implementation of new Saudi laws allowing legal counsel.

Their electrifying move took us all by surprise. It was exciting to see them trying to set a precedent, sacrificing their freedom to make public trials and legal counsel a basic right for all Saudis. But I also felt the weight of their actions. They're in jail for me, too, I realized. The tension increased when the country's leading cleric issued a statement condemning their actions as fitna, or sowing dissension -- a crime that carries the death penalty.

Then, in an unexpected and unprecedented move, the government agreed to the men's demands. A public trial was set for August. Newly released from prison, Lahem decided to take their case.


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