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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 Caryle MurphyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2009

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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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

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.

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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."

"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.

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