Yemen court frees Saudi Juliet into UN protection

SANAA - A Yemeni court on Tuesday released into UN custody a Saudi woman who had crossed the border illegally to elope with a Yemeni man defying tradition in both conservative countries.

In a case reminiscent of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, Huda al-Niran, 22, defied her family and crossed the border illegally to be with her Yemeni beloved Arafat Mohammed Tahar, 25.

Niran was arrested in Yemen for illegal entry and placed on trial, amid mounting pressure from her family and Saudi authorities for her to return home.

But she stuck her ground, pleading in court to be able to stay and marry Tahar, and applied for asylum through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

On Tuesday a Yemeni judge decided to release Niran into the custody of the UNHCR for a period of three months during which she should be able to obtain the refugee status.

A UNHCR representative confirmed to AFP that Niran had initiated proceedings to be granted refugee status in Yemen.

If she succeeds, she will be able to marry Tahar and therefore remain in Yemen.

Tuesday's hearing had been scheduled for December 1, but it was brought forward following a request by Niran's lawyer who feared for her safety behind bars.

In court on Sunday, she refused to accept a lawyer provided by the Saudi embassy, fearing pressure to return home.

She accepted, however, a lawyer appointed by a Yemeni non-government organisation called Hood who had campaigned to reunite the modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

The lovers' plight has gripped imaginations in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where the young woman's courage is seen as astonishing She not only went against the wishes of her family, who said she could not marry Tahar, but also dared to flee the country and follow him to Yemen.

The hearing in her trail was scheduled for December 1, but it was brought forward following a request by her lawyer who feared for her safety behind bars.

Huda's case has also come to the attention of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

On November 19, HRW urged Yemen not to repatriate her and to take into consideration the fact that returning to her family could put her life at risk.

"She fears physical harm from her family members, whom she said have beaten her in the past, if she is returned to Saudi Arabia," HRW had said in a statement.