Saudi crackdown on dissenters
Three activists pushing for reform in the kingdom received up to nine-year jail terms Sunday.
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA
In a strong message to Saudis seeking democratic reforms in the kingdom, authorities Sunday issued sentences of up to nine years for two academics and a poet who were calling for increased political participation.Skip to next paragraph
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The long sentences, which stunned most observers, are a sign that the Saudi royal family, prodded by the Bush administration to make greater democratic reforms, is still unwilling to accept open criticism or peaceful protest, analysts say.
"The government is trying to make an example of them. This is a direct and oppressive method of silencing," says lawyer Bassem Alem in Jeddah.
The three men were jailed in March last year for calling for a constitutional monarchy, elections, and an independent judiciary. Their arrests froze what had been a burgeoning reform movement that started after the Sept. 11 attacks on the US. Most of the hijackers were Saudi and the attacks brought a political and religious soul-searching in this oil-rich kingdom.
Calls for change increased when Al Qaeda violence struck Saudi Arabia two years ago. More than 100 people, including foreigners, security personnel, and terrorists, have since died in the violence.
But the sentences Sunday signal that the Saudi government will initiate reform at its own pace. Poet and author Ali al-Domeini received nine years; retired Islamic affairs professor Abdullah al-Hamid seven years; and political science professor Matruk al-Faleh six years.
When the men were arrested last year, their case was immediately championed by Western and Arab human rights organizations. Humnan Rights Watch issued a letter to President Bush asking him to press Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah to release the men when the two met in April.
Although it's unknown whether Prince Abdullah and President Bush spoke specifically about the case of the reformists, in his February State of the Union address Bush did call on Saudi Arabia to make changes. "The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future," he said.
In its efforts toward reform, Saudi Arabia held limited municipal elections earlier this year. Women were not allowed to participate and elections were for half the seats in 178 municipal councils nationwide. But only 20 percent of the country's eligible voters participated and the majority of the seats went to candidates endorsed by popular clerics.
While the case of the reformists has cast doubt on the Saudis commitment to reform, it hasn't been given much attention within the kingdom where the majority of people are still deeply conservative and influenced by popular clerics. Most here are also skeptical of activists who are widely considered to be secular, analysts say.
"People in Saudi Arabia respect them for standing up for their ideas and for being willing to go to jail for them. But their ideas don't have massive appeal. They appeal mainly to the educated elite," says supporter Nawaf al-Qudaimi.