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Saudi reform advocates face judge in open court

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- In a rare open court hearing, three advocates of democratic reform appeared before a judge yesterday on charges arising from their criticism of the kingdom's political and religious life.

Saudi trials are normally held in private, but Monday's hearing was attended by about 200 people.

The defendants -- Matrouk al-Faleh, Ali al-Dimeeni and Abdullah al-Hamed -- are charged with sowing dissent, creating political instability, printing political leaflets, and using the news media to incite people against the government, according to two political activists who attended.

The activists, Abdul Rahman al-Lahem and Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, said the three asked the judge for two weeks to study the indictment. The judge granted the request.

The open trial is the latest of a series of moves toward limited reform in Saudi Arabia, the boldest of which is a pledge to hold municipal elections starting in November.

The pace of reform has been fitful, reflecting the government's need to conciliate conservative and liberal strands in society.

Conservatives say reform will undermine the traditional power structure and strict Islamic orientation.

Liberals view reform as vital to stem Islamic militancy and to meet the desire for greater freedom among young people.

The three defendants are the last remaining detainees of a group of 13 reformers arrested March 17 who had openly criticized the kingdom's strict religious environment and slow pace of reform.

Some of the 13 had signed a letter to Crown Prince Abdullah calling for political, economic, and social reforms, including parliamentary elections.

The detentions caused tension between Riyadh and Washington after the US State Department condemned them as ''inconsistent with the kind of forward progress that reform-minded people are looking for."

The Saudi Foreign Ministry replied it was ''disappointed" by the US reaction.

Yesterday, activist Mugaiteeb hailed the hearing as ''a landmark."

''It is the first public trial of its kind, and it is positive in the sense that it validates the principle of freedom," said Mugaiteeb.

Mugaiteeb, who leads a group called Human Rights First, said the state should release the defendants: ''They are prisoners of conscience. They should be at home. They are not criminals or arms bearers," he said.

The hearing was adjourned until Aug. 23.

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