Saudis cling to outlet for free expression
The kingdom has told some private discussion groups to register or quit altogether.
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Indeed, there have been signs of some social changes on the streets of Riyadh. Women can be seen without the traditional head coverings and the country's religious police, who enforce the kingdom's strict moral code, are less obvious.Skip to next paragraph
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But the arrest of nine Saudi reformists on Feb. 10, 2007, dashed the last hopes of many who were hoping for more substantial reforms. And many see the government move to regulate salons as another sign the kingdom is backing away from allowing more political openness.
The arrests took place after the nine had signed a petition addressed to King Abdullah calling for political reform and the splitting up of the Ministry of Interior. If this were implemented, it would seriously weaken the powers of the interior minister, Prince Naif ibn Abdul Aziz, who is known to be strongly opposed to the reform movement.
"A group of us met with Prince Naif in January 2004 before we were imprisoned, and he strongly objected to the use of the term 'reform,' " recalls Matrouk al-Faleh, one of the three jailed reformists pardoned by King Abdullah in late 2005.
Faleh says that he believes one of the reasons that the nine reformers were arrested was that some of them were about to announce the formation of a political party, something the government has warned repeatedly it would not allow. "These arrests are a coverup on the part of the Ministry of Interior to kill any activation of democratic reform demands," he says.
The government has also accused some of the nine arrested reformists with sending money to "terrorists" in Iraq, a charge strongly denied by their lawyer Bassem Alim and the relatives of Saud Al-Mokhtar, one of the arrested reformists.
US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says he also does not believe that the reformists were sending money to terrorists, telling United Press International on March 26, 2007, that "based on the evidence I have seen, it appears more likely that these men were actually democracy activists."
The nine jailed reformists have been denied access to their lawyers and families, and are being held in a secret location without being charged or tried in a court of law.
Still hope for change
Despite all of these setbacks, reformists like Faleh and the female academic are still optimistic that things will gradually improve in five to 10 years from now.
"We hope that King Abdullah will continue reform. We have some problems with some of our senior leadership who are opposing change. We don't believe that the Saudi public and the religious establishment are obstacles to reform," says Faleh.
"We want an independent judiciary and a code of public liberties that guarantee freedom of expression, participation and formation of civil society groups," he adds.
The female academic says that her group plans to apply for permission to continue operating. "These are very disturbing messages we are getting from them. Is the government serious about reform or not?" she asks. "So far, what we have seen have been only cosmetic reforms."