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Last Updated: Monday, 9 August, 2004, 17:02 GMT 18:02 UK
Trial begins for Saudi reformists
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News

Saudi men flee police during a rally in Riyadh in late 2003
Political rallies remain very rare in Riyadh
Three reform advocates have appeared in court in Saudi Arabia for the first time.

The trial comes at a time when the Saudi royal family is under pressure to implement its promises for reform in the monarchy.

Matrouq al-Faleh, Abdullah al-Hamid and Ali al-Demaini were arrested in March.

A prosecution statement accused them formally of promoting a constitutional monarchy and using Western terminology in demanding political reforms.

In the eyes of the authorities, this amounts to a threat to national unity.

After more than four months in jail, the three men appeared in an Islamic court in Riyadh in what is thought to be the first public political trial in the kingdom.

They were arrested with 10 other moderate reform activists.

Most of those arrested were eventually released after promising to call for reform only through official channels or end their pro-reform activities altogether.

The trial of the three men was adjourned until 24 August.

It is unclear what kind of verdict they might face.

Aims of openness

In Saudi Arabia the judge determines the sentence on the basis of Sharia, or Islamic law.

Until recently, prisoners in the absolute monarchy never had access to a lawyer and had no visitation rights, and, other than a few exceptions, trials were always closed to the public.

The three reformists were given access to a lawyer, but only three months into their detention.

Their trial in public appears to be sign of some openness, but authorities may also want it to deter anyone watching from engaging in independent reform activities.


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