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Last Updated: Monday, 11 July, 2005, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Saudi Stories: The writer

Bill Law
Reporter, Saudi Stories

Hamza al-Mizeini describes himself as "an ordinary guy, not a brave man", but this softly-spoken professor of linguistics is anything but ordinary.

SAUDI STORIES
Saudi Arabian men
Read all five Saudi stories:
Listen to the series online or via podcast in two installments:

Articles Mr Mizeini has written over the past two years condemning the slide into extremism at his own university and within the Saudi education system provoked the wrath of religious conservatives.

"I wrote about some religious and social issues that got parts of the establishment very angry. They wanted to settle a score with me," he told me at his home in a suburb of Riyadh.

His opponents bombarded him with hate-filled emails and text messages. He received numerous death threats, including one from a fellow academic.

The writer ignored the threats and kept writing. Early in 2005, though, he found himself hauled up in front of the Sharia court.

Courageous stance

Mr Mizeini had become the pawn in a behind the scenes power struggle between the liberal-leaning Crown Prince Abdullah, the effective head of state, and the conservative religious authorities who control the country's judiciary.

The conservatives hoped to use the Mizeini case to silence their critics.

Crown Prince Abdullah
The Mizeini case put Crown Prince Abdullah in a dilemma
And they were gambling the government would stick to its official line of non-intervention in Sharia court rulings.

Six times over several months Mr Mizeini went before the judge and six times with enormous courage said simply: "You have no jurisdiction over me."

He cited regulations established by the crown prince that say any dispute between writers and others in the newspapers must be settled at the information ministry, not the court.

"This is what I kept telling the judge," he told me with a glint of amusement in his eyes.

Rush to judgment

Anxious to be seen as not openly intervening but frustrated by the persistence of the religious hardliners, Crown Prince Abdullah wrote a letter directing the case be dropped.

I said to the judge: 'Prince Abdullah has issued his order. Do whatever you like.' The judge passed a sentence of 75 lashes and two months' jail
Knowing the letter was on its way, the judge abruptly brought Mr Mizeini's appearance forward.

"I asked the judge what the rush was, why he was bringing me to the court that day. And he said: 'Well, today is a suitable day.'"

The judge ordered Mr Mizeini to produce the letter from the crown prince.

"He knew that it was impossible for me to get a copy, and he said: 'If you don't bring me a copy, I'll issue my verdict.'

"I said: 'Look, I'm just telling you that Prince Abdullah issued his order. This is your job. Do whatever you like.'"

The judge promptly passed a sentence of 75 lashes and two months in jail.

Responsibility

The lashes were to be administered all at once which - had the order been carried out - could well have killed the slight and ageing Mr Mizeini.

Saudi man hides his face from a photographer
Saudi Arabia is a fiercely conservative religious society
When the writer challenged the judge again, he upped the sentence with an extra 200 lashes.

But this time the hardliners had gone too far. Just hours after the verdict was passed, an angry Crown Prince Abdullah ordered it set aside.

Mr Mizeini says he will keep writing. "It's not a choice, it is a responsibility."

And what of the hard-line conservatives who tried to silence him?

"What made them strong in the past was that they were the only voice. They win when there is just one voice. Now there are many voices and they cannot win."


Bill Law's series, Saudi Stories was first broadcast in June and July 2005 on Radio 4 and World Service.

The Saudi Stories programmes are available to listen online or to download in two installments as part of the BBC Podcasting trial.




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