Tiny Saudi democracy movement sends king blueprint for reform

Signed by 77 activists, a petition sent by express mail Wednesday night calls for an elected parliament and public access to the trials of 991 suspects in Al Qaeda-inspired violence.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    On Wednesday night, Saudi human rights activists sent a petition via express mail to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, shown here speaking at a graduation ceremony in Riyadh this week.
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Saudi rights activists have sent King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz a petition asking for an elected parliament, term limits on royal princes appointed to official posts, and an end to "secret tribunals" for Saudis charged with terrorism offenses.

The petition, which also requests that the post of prime minister be given to "a commoner," is another attempt by Saudi Arabia's tiny but persistent democracy movement to get its voice heard in an absolute monarchy that prohibits political parties.

Sent Wednesday by express mail to the king and 20 other officials, the petition signed by 77 people – mostly self-described "human rights activists" – asks for a constitutional monarchy "like UK, Jordan, and Morocco."

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"Our people have to share in the decisions of our country," says petitioner Fowzan Mohsin Al Harbi, a mechanical engineer at King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh.

"We need an elected parliament and a prime minister from our people," he adds. "It's good for the royal family and it's good for the people."

In a situation similar to the US debate over the prosecution of Guantánamo detainees, the petition challenged the closed trials of alleged terror suspects – proceedings that the Saudi government has said little about. It asserted that the defendants are being denied their basic rights as guaranteed by Islamic jurisprudence and Saudi criminal statutes.

Calling for "fair and public trials" for the detainees, the document stated that "violence and terrorism can only be rooted out by applying justice, and by respecting the rule of law." The use of "religious discourse to sugarcoat politically motivated and ill-intended decisions," it added, "has driven society toward extremism and violence."

Ministry had promised trials would be open

The status of the terrorism trials is unclear, but two sources who monitor human rights believe they have started.

In October, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz announced that 991 suspects had been charged in connection with a wave of Al Qaeda-inspired violence that killed 90 civilians, both foreigners and Saudis.

His announcement added that the suspects had been transferred to the courts for trial. The charges were organized into about 30 cases with multiple defendants, one for each violent incident that took place between 2003 and 2006.

But the government has given no details since then on when the trials actually started, who has been charged, or what verdicts and sentences have been imposed.

Interior ministry spokesman Gen. Mansour Al Turki has declined to speak about the trials, saying that information about them should come from the Ministry of Justice. That ministry has not replied to a request for an interview on the matter.

"I know [the trials] have started," says Christoph Wilcke, who follows Saudi Arabia for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, in an interview.

Two other persons who asked not to be identified said that the trials started earlier this year and involved defendants charged with lesser offenses of abetting terrorist acts, not directly participating in them.

Mr. Wilcke says that it is "very disheartening" that the trials are not open to the public, though the Interior Ministry had said last fall they would be. According to his initial information, Wilcke adds, "dozens" of suspects had been tried as of six weeks ago.

He said that the proceedings seem to be "fairly summary," offering defendants, who do not have lawyers with them, little time to prepare their defense or challenge evidence against them.

A 'blueprint' for political reform

Mohammed Al Qahtani, a human rights activist who helped draft the petition, says that the "biggest accomplishment" that the document might achieve is "to bring to the people's attention this injustice that these people are facing. It could well be that there are people among them who are innocent."

As for the rest of the document, Mr. Qahtani says that "we [the petitioners] are giving them [the royal family] a blueprint plan of what to do if they are serious about political reform."

Sent to Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, and several cabinet ministers, the petition also states that an elected parliament should have a role in selecting future crown princes.

Attempts to reach government officials for comment on the petition during what is the Saudi weekend were unsuccessful. Officials at the Ministry of Information and Ministry of Justice did not reply to e-mails and text messages sent to them.

Few Saudis vocal about democracy

The petitioners are acting in a generally unresponsive environment. Most Saudis are pleased by the greater social and press freedoms they have enjoyed since Abdullah became king, though many express frustration that social and economic reforms are not going faster.

But few Saudis are vocal about pressing for democracy, which does not appear to be high on their wish list. This is particularly so because of what they see when they look at their neighbors. In Iraq, they see sectarian violence and corruption, and in Kuwait, prolonged political paralysis brought on by constant conflict between its emir and elected parliament.

In 2003, Saudi political reformers organized a petition asking for a constitutional monarchy. Organizers of that effort were imprisoned, along with their lawyer. King Abdullah later pardoned and freed the men after he ascended the throne in 2005.

Democracy activists since then have not fared well. A group of about 10 in Jeddah allegedly planning to launch a political party were jailed more than two years ago. Several remain in custody. None were charged with crimes.

Last year, human rights activist Matrouq al Faleh was detained after he posted a scathing report about poor prison conditions online. Never charged, the political science professor was released after eight months.

His prolonged detention gave rise to a rare protest by hunger strikers in November. Some of the strikers were active in gathering signatures for the latest petition.

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