A UN official has called on Yemen to grant asylum to a Saudi woman who is fighting to marry her Yemeni lover, in a case reminiscent of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet.

Huda al-Niran, 22, will return to court on December 1 after she appeared on Sunday to plead her case, arguing she should be allowed to remain in Yemen after crossing the border illegally to marry Arafat Mohammed Taher al-Qadi, 25.

"Love before borders and citizenship," hundreds of supporters chanted outside the Sanaa courthouse.

Others sported headbands proclaiming: "We are all Huda."

An official with the United Nations refugee agency told Reuters on condition of anonymity that UNHCR would help al-Niran obtain "humanitarian asylum" to avoid deportation.

The lovers' plight has gripped imaginations in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, deeply conservative countries where the young woman's courage is seen as astonishing.

The pair met while al-Qadi was working at a mobile telephone shop in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Niran not only went against the wishes of her family, who said she could not marry Arafat, but also dared to flee the country and follow him to Yemen in October.

Yemeni authorities detained her for entering the country illegally pending trial, which is expected to result in her deportation. 

Humanitarian concerns

In court, al-Niran refused to accept a lawyer provided by the Saudi embassy, fearing pressure to return home.

Instead, she was represented by a lawyer appointed by a Yemeni non-governmental organisation called Hood.

"This is a humanitarian case, and must not raise tensions between the two countries," lawyer Abdel Rakib al-Qadi said, noting Sanaa was being pressured by Saudi authorities to ensure the young woman's return.

Court was adjourned until December 1, pending a formal ruling from UNHCR on al-Niran's request to be granted refugee status in Yemen.

The case has also caught the attention of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Last week, the organisation urged Yemen not to repatriate the woman, noting: "She fears physical harm from her family members, whom she said have beaten her in the past, if she is returned to Saudi Arabia."

Source: Agencies