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The Case The Saudis Can't Make

This small man took on mythic proportions once more. Here he was in the country's main courthouse, openly encouraging others to do what he had done -- defy the system.

Dozen of cops with Kalashnikov rifles fanned out by the wall. The judge had adjourned the trial, we learned, because the crowd was too rowdy. The detainees were led away, and the crowd went home.

That was the last time the trial -- such as it was -- was open to the public. I continued to follow the case, calling Lahem every couple of weeks. It was postponed several times, then moved from the upper court, where the activists could have received death sentences, to the lower court, where they couldn't, and then back to the upper court. Unable to defend them in court, Lahem defended them tirelessly in public, talking to prosecutors, to judges, to Arab human rights organizations. He appeared on the U.S. government-owned al-Hurra satellite channel and on al-Jazeera. He continued to talk to Western journalists. The government called him in every once in a while, but he didn't stop, until he was arrested in November. The charges against him have not been announced.

A couple of weeks ago, on the anniversary of the initial arrests, I spoke with an American friend. What is most interesting about this case, he said, is: Who's on trial here? Is it these three guys sitting in jail or the Saudi legal system that put them there?

I believe the answer is clear; it is the Saudi legal system now on trial.

So, as I watch footage of brave Lebanese demonstrators and Iraqi voters who are -- step by step and ballot by ballot -- making the Middle East a more democratic place, I think of two academics, a poet and a lawyer, who are trying to make sure that this Arabian Spring is no mirage. They're doing so by sitting in their sunless jail cells.

Author's e-mail: ambahfaiza@mac.com

Faiza Saleh Ambah is a Saudi journalist based in Jiddah. She writes mainly for the Christian Science Monitor.

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