New Crackdown On Rights In Riyadh Must Stop

The West should welcome Saudi watchdog group, and not applaud the arrests of its members

THE Saudi government's detention of Mohammed Masa'ari, the spokesman for the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, the first human rights organization inside Saudi Arabia, and the firing of everyone affiliated with this organization from their government positions, is creating widespread anger in the country. It has been reported that the wives of these activists are organizing a sit-in in front of the United States embassy in Riyadh to protest the US government's protection of a regime that by

all standards seriously violates human rights.

Unfortunately, the human rights group has so far been portrayed by many in the American press as a group of "fundamentalists" and the "moderate" Saudi government praised for its actions. However, despite the religious coloring of the committee's language, the group has been welcomed by many who are concerned with questions of freedom throughout the Middle East. The Washington-based International Committee for Human Rights in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula (ICHR-GAP) has hailed the emergence of a human ri ghts group inside Saudi Arabia as a significant development that represents a "new link in a chain of events and initiatives reflecting Saudi people's desire to achieve their basic civil rights." The different statements that came from different organizations in the Arab world suggest that the question of human rights is likely to be the link between Islamists and non-Islamists in their fight against the many oppressive and authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes.

The members of the committee in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are Islamists, deem it an important part of their religious duty to seek the elimination of oppression and injustice. In its first statement to the Saudi public, the group called on all concerned citizens to report any kind of injustice or discrimination, citing verses from the Koran and the prophet's tradition that support the goals of the organization. The group has also provided telephone and fax numbers to which all complaints may be addresse d and asked "believers" to cooperate with the committee in alleviating injustice.

In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, the committee's spokesman said, "We are looking for changes in the judicial system, the labor laws, and we want elections like they have had in Kuwait and now in Yemen. We hope to enter into a dialogue with the government like reasonable men and women." The mention of women suggests a new Islamic concern with women's rights, something many of the same Islamists denounced when 51 women organized a "drive in" during the Gulf crisis. It seems that Sau di society is undergoing transformation and that the regime's opponents no longer divide conservatives and liberals into separate camps. Instead, a wider movement based on new alliances between the conservatives, liberals, Shiites, and women groups is emerging. It is that alliance, perhaps, that threatens Saudi royals and promoted them to act, accusing the members of this organization of being nucleus for a political party. This is a serious charge: Political parties in Saudi Arabia are illegal. The spokesm an of this group maintained that they are a human rights organization only. "In any other country a human rights group would be normal. Our only goal is to hold the government accountable."

The Saudi crackdown came after an edict from the religious authority that condemned this group and stated that there is no need for such organization in a country that governs according to the tenants of Islamic Sharia. However, this time such an accusation is not likely to be accepted by even the most conservative segment in Saudi society for two reasons.

First, the injustice that this group attempts to report is widely felt by different segments in Saudi society. Second, those who formed the organization are not liberals vulnerable to the accusation of being "westernized secularists," a charge the religious establishment usually uses to discredit protesters; one of the strengths of this group is that those who formed it are people who give legitimacy to the regime, the religious conservatives. One of them, Sheikh Abdulla Al-Jubrien, used to be the second

man in the government's religious establishment but left it recently after what he calls "an increase of the oppressive practices" of the regime. Another founding member is Abdulla Misa'ari, the former head of Diwan Al-Mazalem, the Saudi equivalent of Ombudsman. The rest of the members are academics, tribal leaders, and activists who are part of the Islamic movement in Saudi Arabia.

Those protesting the regime's violations of rights are people from powerful tribes who could pose a serious threat to the Saud family. At present, these groups are simply requesting that the current regime respect such basic human rights as protection from arbitrary arrest and torture - requests that the US government should encourage the Saudi regime to accommodate. Otherwise, the committee may be radicalized into using armed force against the regime, as in Algeria and Egypt.

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