Saudi reformers recoup after blow

Saudi authorities released five of a dozen detained activists, after they agreed to cease political activities.

Activists in Saudi Arabia are trying to continue on the path of political reform despite last week's detention of their top leaders, criticism from the government, and being labeled "a true enemy" by the country's highest religious authority.

Since the detentions, many Saudis who previously spoke freely have been reluctant to go on the record, fearing they, too, could be targeted by the authorities. But they have continued to meet in small groups and have gathered signatures for a petition in support of the detainees.

Of the dozen activists detained, at least five have been released after they signed a statement promising to not sign petitions calling for reform or talk to the media. Online newspaper Elaph said the remaining leaders were refusing to cooperate without legal representation, and that they would not be released until they signed a similar statement.

Some reformists see the detentions as a necessary crossroads for the reform movement and the Saudi leadership. "Now we must organize, organize, organize. Nothing comes without sacrifice. Rights are not handed out; they are taken," activist Sami Angawi says.

"The government has been in charge for 70 years and has done a good job. Now it's time for the people to participate. Everyone wants [the royal family] Al Saud to remain in power - they keep the country stable. But what we need now is not democracy but freedom - freedom to gather, to express ourselves, to discuss issues, and then advise the government," says Mr. Angawi, a member of the Council for the National Dialogue, a forum initiated by the government to encourage different sectors of society to communicate.

Several senior princes recently asked the detainees to slow down the speed and adjust the scope of their demands - and to present a unified front at a time when the country is wrestling with terrorism, activists say.

Saudi authorities have been waging a fierce battle against extremists linked to Al Qaeda since last May's suicide bombing at a housing compound in Riyadh. Despite dozens of arrests, shootouts, and discoveries of huge caches of weapons, the extremists hit again in November. More than 20 suspected Al Qaeda members are still on the run in Saudi Arabia. Just last week two suspected Al Qaeda members strapped with explosive-laden belts - on their way to carry out a suicide mission - were shot dead in downtown Riyadh by security forces.

At a Friday press conference with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in the capital, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal accused the detainees of seeking "dissension when the whole country was looking for unity and a clear vision, especially at a time when it is facing a terrorist threat."

Mr. Powell said he expressed concern over the detentions to the Saudi authorities during his stopover in Riyadh.

Writer Najeeb al-Khineizi, one of the released detainees, says the detention of the reformist leaders creates a void that could hurt the country.

"Silencing these moderate voices is not to the benefit of the authorities. Without this avenue, people will find different ways to express themselves, because change is inevitable," says Mr. Khineizi, who was banned from writing in Saudi newspapers a year ago. "We are not looking for radical solutions, but step-by-step movement. Stagnation is deadly to reform."

Khineizi says he was picked up by Saudi security at a coffe shop last Tuesday, and was released Thursday after he signed a statement under duress.

The government-controlled Saudi press, which has been freer and more critical over the past two years during the reform initiative, remained silent about the arrests, publishing only official statements.

Sunday's al-Hayat newspaper published an interview with grand mufti Abdul-Aziz al-Sheik condemning the detainees. "Those who cast doubt on the nation's leadership ... are the true enemies even if they call for reform," the paper quoted Mr. Sheik as saying.

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia's National Human Rights Association, set up earlier this month by the government, issued a statement saying it was looking into the matter of the detainees. The head of the association, Abdullah al-Obeid, told the Okaz daily that Saudi authorities "are entitled by law to arrest anyone for questioning."

Lawyer Abdul-Aziz al-Qassim, who helped write several of the petitions, says the arrests should have been expected and would not hurt the reform movement. "A lot of change was going on in a short period of time," he says. "People were sending petitions and talking out in the open and meeting in public, and this was not common before."

Qassim says he expects the reformers to continue to work toward change. Yet, now that they know where the red lines are, they would operate "at a slower pace and in a more quiet manner."

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