- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Saudi authorities have arrested the attorney for three reformists who are on trial over calls for a constitutional monarchy in the desert kingdom.

Lawyer Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem was taken into custody on Saturday, and he has not been heard from since. Repeated calls to his cell phone were unsuccessful.

“Until today we don’t know why he was arrested. No charges have been filed against him,” said Bassem Alim, a lawyer working as a consultant to the three reformists.

The reformists — Ali Al-Demaini, Matruk Al-Faleh and Abdullah Al-Hamed — have been in jail since March 10, when they were arrested after calling for an independent judiciary and limits on the power of the Saudi monarchy by adopting a constitution.

Their effort was not unlike that advocated by President Bush in his democracy initiative for the Middle East.

“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” Mr. Bush said a year ago.

At the time, he singled out Saudi Arabia for praise, saying: “The Saudi government is taking first steps toward reform, including a plan for gradual introduction of elections.”

Mr. Al-Lahem’s arrest was preceded by a letter from the three defendants to Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, questioning whether they were receiving a fair trial.

“I hope [Mr. Al-Lahem] wasn’t arrested because of the letter that the detainees sent to the crown prince,” Mr. Alim told The Washington Times in a phone interview.

“You cannot arrest someone for sending a letter to the head of state. It’s not against the law to do so,” he said.

In the letter, the defendants also called for reopening their trial to the public.

The trial had been opened briefly to the public in August, but after large numbers of supporters and relatives of the reformists could not fit into the tiny courtroom, the three judges handling the case decided to close the trial once again.

The seven-page letter to the crown prince listed a series of incidents that they said “provide evidence that the judges are not neutral and are siding with the stronger side, which is the state, against the helpless ones.”

The reformists also accused one of the judges of physically forcing them to enter the courtroom and answer questions behind closed doors, which they refused to do.

They called for a committee to study their complaints, and for local and international journalists to be allowed to cover their trial. The trial was last adjourned Oct. 4. It was not clear when the trial would resume.

The three reformists were arrested with eight activists after circulating a petition calling for constitutional reforms. The eight were released after they agreed not to sign any more petitions calling for reforms.

Mr. Alim said the government perhaps was trying to intimidate Mr. Al-Lahem and leave the three reformists without a lawyer.

Mr. Al-Lahem has been detained several times before by the police, once after speaking to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite television station, and once after reportedly using his cell phone camera to take pictures inside the courtroom.

Meanwhile, the wife of Mr. Al-Deimani, Umm Adil, complained to the Saudi press this week that the National Human Rights Association (NHRA) was doing nothing to help her husband and the other detainees.

The newly founded rights group has adopted an extremely low profile, insisting that it isn’t an activist pressure group nor a government institution.

NHRA member Bakr Bagader said it was following the trial of the reformists and would complain to the government if their rights were violated.

Mrs. Al-Deimani said she and the detainees were waiting until after the Eid holiday, which starts Sunday, to see the official government reaction to their complaints.

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