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The Case The Saudis Can't Make

After learning about the arraignment, I flew to Riyadh last summer to cover the trial for the Christian Science Monitor and met Lahem in the hotel lobby the evening before the court date. I came down to the lobby to find I was the sole woman in a room full of men smoking, chatting and sipping tea.

Lahem, a small thin man, walked over to introduce himself, dragging a limp leg behind him. He thanked me for coming to cover the trial. This case was very close to his heart, he explained. It would go down in Saudi history, and yet it was being largely ignored in the government-controlled Saudi press. The case against his clients was illegal, he continued, and he intended to demand their immediate release.

I looked at him, full of curiosity. Hadn't he been jailed for precisely what he was doing now -- criticizing the government and talking to the press? It's illegal for them to jail me for speaking my mind, he answered. Despite his firsthand knowledge of the abuses in the Saudi legal system, Lahem appeared to me like a horse who had gone out and purchased his own blinders, choosing to ignore the realities around him and focus only on the rules.

His clients were only asking for their rights, he explained. And they were in jail for him, too. "Somebody has to speak out, Faiza," he said.

The next day, when I arrived at the courthouse, the area was crowded with supporters and family of the reformists and several journalists -- although only one local journalist's report would later appear, and that was in an English-language paper. About 20 women, all completely veiled (as I was for the first time in my life), stood together to one side chatting.

Lahem walked me over to the wives of Faleh and Domeini and introduced us. Faiza is a member of the free press, he beamed. She writes for an American paper.

Two hours later the atmosphere was growing tense. The judges no longer wanted to allow the public to attend the trial. The defendants were refusing to enter the courtroom without their family and friends present, and Lahem was refusing to take part if the proceedings remained closed. Several dozen armed soldiers were standing on the stairs that led up to the courtroom. The families, some of whom had traveled across the country to attend the trial, were getting restless.

There were raised voices -- the wives of Domeini and Faleh arguing with police. One threatened to force her way up the stairs. The cops, young and wafer thin, stared at her, her face covered with a veil, only her eyes visible through slits.

"I came from Dammam to see my husband and attend his trial. I will not leave until I do that," Domeini's wife said. "Either you let me up or you move out of my way."

I was astounded by her fearlessness, having always associated the veil with docility. The two women started jostling toward the police. The cops thrust out their arms and warned the women not to move closer.

Just as their husbands were turning the tables on the legal system, they were turning the tables on the police. It was one of many discoveries I made about my country that day. In this conservative country, men are not permitted to come in close contact with females who are not related to them, so the cops had no way of restraining the defendants' wives. The ruckus achieved its purpose. An officer arrived at the top of the stairs. Let the crowd up, he signaled.

Outside the courtroom, I found the three defendants dressed in traditional long Saudi robes and sitting on plastic chairs. They seemed so normal, so unassuming, chatting with their wives and grandchildren, that it took a couple of minutes for me to connect them with the heroic figures they had become in my mind.

Supporters kept streaming up, and within minutes the hallway was jammed with rows of men sitting cross-legged on the marble floor. Women sat to the side, their backs to the wall. Defendant Hamid, a frail bearded man in his fifties, stood up on one of the chairs and addressed the crowd:

"They filled the courtroom with plainclothes police to try to trick us. We refused to enter the courtroom when we didn't find our friends and family there. We did not accept this sham of a trial. We will not give up demanding our rights, no matter how long it takes," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "We can bring about change, but some of you, at least 12 or eight of you, have to be willing to go to jail."

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