- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Representatives of jailed human rights lawyer Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem learned for the first time yesterday the nature of charges against the activist, who was arrested more than two months ago while acting as lawyer to three leading Saudi reformers.

Mr. Al-Lahem faces trial on charges of criticizing government officials, including the powerful Interior Minister Prince Nayef Ibn Abdul Aziz; working against the government; and violating a written pledge not to speak to the international press, according to a statement released by his legal defense team in the capital Riyadh.

Mr. Al-Lahem, the outspoken lawyer of three prominent reformers who have been jailed since March 10, was arrested in early November in Riyadh but not immediately charged.

The meeting yesterday with three members of his defense team and two of his brothers marked his first contact with the outside world since his arrest.

“We met with him for around one and a half hours,” one of his supporters told The Washington Times, asking that his name not be used.

“We are asking the prison authorities to move him from Al-Hair prison, which houses many terrorists, to Alesha jail, where the reformists are being held.”

Mr. Al-Lahem has been in solitary confinement for the past 71 days, although Saudi law does not allow for such detention to exceed 60 days. He also has gone on two hunger strikes.

Calls to government officials for comment went unanswered.

“The isolation was clearly done to break his spirit,” said Bassem Alim, a member of the legal defense team who was not at yesterday’s meeting.

“Solitary confinement is usually done after sentencing and only after the jail warden decides the prisoner is a danger to others,” he said by telephone from Jakarta, Indonesia, where he was traveling.

Mr. Alim said that there is nothing in Saudi law that prohibits constructive criticism of government policy, and that he thought the pledge Mr. Al-Lahem had signed not to speak to the foreign media was not enforceable.

“You cannot make someone pledge not to speak out. It is a God-given right that all humans have, so I don’t think he should be charged with breaking that pledge,” said Mr. Alim.

The Saudi government routinely asks lawbreakersto sign pledges that they will not repeat the offensive behavior.

Mr. Al-Lahem, who is 34 years old and the father of two children, had been arrested several times for outspoken interviews with the Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah satellite television stations, in which he called for democratic reform and a constitutional monarchy.

His passport was taken away several months ago, and he consequently sued the Interior Ministry to get it back. The case was thrown out of court last month when the judge ruled that Mr. Al-Lahem had sued the wrong government entity. He was told to address his complaint to the royal court.

The Al-Saud royal family has ruled the country since independence in 1932 without a written constitution.

Most power is concentrated in the family’s hands, though an appointed Shoura Council proposes legislation to the government and municipal elections scheduled to begin next month will introduce limited democracy.

No trial date has been set for Mr. Al-Lahem, but prison authorities promised to set up visiting hours for his family and legal team in 10 days’ time.

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