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Trial of Saudis proposing democracy postponed amid protest

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- A Saudi judge postponed the trial of three advocates seeking democratic overhauls yesterday after their supporters, in a rare show of public dissent, demonstrated for access and then protested loudly once allowed into court.

More than 400 supporters of Matrouk al-Faleh, Ali al-Dimeeni, and Abdullah al-Hamed held the three-hour peaceful protest outside the courtroom.

The three defendants refused to begin the session, complaining to the judge that their supporters were barred from attending. The judge replied that the courtroom was full and that all those attending were from the public.

''Most of those in this court are intelligence agents, brought here to deceive the public," the defense countered.

The judge then ordered that those outside be allowed to enter.

Once inside, the supporters began shouting slogans advocating changes.

''Long live reform! God is with you! We are together on the path to reform," they shouted, said a courtroom observer on condition of anonymity. No arrests were made and the judge postponed the session without setting a date for the next hearing.

During the first session of the trial last week, the three defendants were charged with sowing dissent, creating political instability, printing political leaflets, and using the media to incite people against the government.

That session was held in public, an unprecedented move in the kingdom, and was attended by 200 people. Saudi trials are normally held behind closed doors.

Whether yesterday's session would be open or closed had not been officially announced. Supporters of the defendants arrived assuming it was open.

The defendants are the last remaining detainees of a group of 13 intellectuals who were arrested March 17 after criticizing the kingdom's strict religious environment and slow pace of change.

Some of the 13 had signed a letter to Crown Prince Abdullah calling for political, economic, and social overhauls, including parliamentary elections. Others had demanded the absolute monarchy become a constitutional monarchy and had criticized the National Human Rights Association, a new body whose members were appointed by the king.

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.

The Saudi royal family has absolute power, and Saudis cannot hold public gatherings to discuss political or social issues. However, fear of domestic terrorism -- brought home after suicide bombings on May 12, 2003, that killed 35 people, including nine Saudi attackers -- has initiated an unprecedented public debate. Some Saudis argue that lack of democracy has made the kingdom a breeding ground for extremists.

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