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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.

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

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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.