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DAMMAN - Fatima al-Timani is near the end of her sixth month in prison in the Saudi town of Damman. Her only crime is to refuse to be separated from the man to whom she had been happily married for four years and with whom she has two children.

Fatima is the latest victim of a growing practice of forced divorce, where relatives have used hardline Islamic courts to dissolve matches against the will of the married couple.

The plight of 34-year-old Fatima, who was pregnant when court proceedings began in 2005 and is now in prison with her 1-year-old son, Suleiman, has drawn widespread public sympathy.

She is forbidden to see her husband, Mansour al-Timani. He now looks after their 2-year-old son, Noha, who has been allowed only occasional visits to his mother.

Fatima's relatives have accused Mansour of lying about his tribal background to the bride's father to win approval for the marriage and they want it annulled so she can have an arranged marriage to a spouse of their choosing.

She was arrested last October in Jeddah and charged with living illegally with Mansour. Their efforts to be reunited received a further setback this month when an appeal court upheld the original ruling forcing the divorce.

Mansour has said he will not accept the appeal court's ruling, which he denounces as un-Islamic, and still considers Fatima his wife.

Human rights activist Fawziya Al-Ouyoni, one of the women behind a petition calling on King Abdullah to personally intervene, said: "When the divorce is carried out with the couple's approval, then this is just the way it happens all over the world. But when the divorce is forced on the couple with an order from a high court, that is a massive disaster."

Saudi Arabia has possibly the worst record on women's rights of any country in the world.

The oil-rich kingdom has been ruled since the 1920s by the House of Saud, whose clerical allies, the Wahhabists, have imposed an austere state faith on what was a religiously diverse mixture of Muslims with Sunni, Shiite and Sufi communities.

Under Wahhabi rule women have no voting rights, almost no employment rights and are barred from even driving a car.