A Saudi judge Monday was forced to postpone the trial of three men accused of incitement for demanding democratic reforms in the kingdom. Supporters of the men disrupted the courtroom proceedings, shouting pro-reform slogans.
In a society where public dissent is almost unheard of, several hundred supporters of the men began shouting in the courtroom, "Long live reform." When they refused to heed repeated demands for silence, the judge postponed the trial, saying the courtroom observers had shown disrespect for the court's rules.
Initially, the supporters were not allowed in the courtroom, and held a peaceful protest outside. They were eventually let inside, after the defendants said they would refuse to cooperate, unless the courtroom was opened. Once inside, the supporters began shouting pro-reform slogans, leading the judge to cancel the day's proceedings.
The case has attracted the attention of the U.S. State Department, which has condemned the detention of the men as being inconsistent with progress toward reform. The Saudi Foreign Ministry has said Riyadh is disappointed with the American reaction.
The three men are accused of creating public instability by printing political leaflets, and using the media to incite the public against the government.
They are the last of a group of 13 reformist intellectuals who were arrested in March for criticizing the government for the slow pace of reform and the kingdom's strict religious environment.
Most of the others were released a few days later, after promising never again to lobby publicly for reform.
Privately, some Saudi officials have acknowledged that the lack of democratic reforms in the kingdom may be a contributing factor in the rising tide of terrorism in Saudi Arabia.
One senior Saudi official recently said the kingdom would have little choice but to implement political reforms if "the kingdom is to survive."
The government has made small steps toward reform. Later this year, the kingdom plans to hold its first ever public elections for half the members of new municipal councils. The others will still be appointed by the Saudi royal family.