In a strong message to Saudis seeking democratic reforms in the kingdom, authorities Sunday issued sentences of up to nine years for two academics and a poet who were calling for increased political participation.
The long sentences, which stunned most observers, are a sign that the Saudi royal family, prodded by the Bush administration to make greater democratic reforms, is still unwilling to accept open criticism or peaceful protest, analysts say.
"The government is trying to make an example of them. This is a direct and oppressive method of silencing," says lawyer Bassem Alem in Jeddah.
The three men were jailed in March last year for calling for a constitutional monarchy, elections, and an independent judiciary. Their arrests froze what had been a burgeoning reform movement that started after the Sept. 11 attacks on the US. Most of the hijackers were Saudi and the attacks brought a political and religious soul-searching in this oil-rich kingdom.
Calls for change increased when Al Qaeda violence struck Saudi Arabia two years ago. More than 100 people, including foreigners, security personnel, and terrorists, have since died in the violence.
But the sentences Sunday signal that the Saudi government will initiate reform at its own pace. Poet and author Ali al-Domeini received nine years; retired Islamic affairs professor Abdullah al-Hamid seven years; and political science professor Matruk al-Faleh six years.
When the men were arrested last year, their case was immediately championed by Western and Arab human rights organizations. Humnan Rights Watch issued a letter to President Bush asking him to press Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah to release the men when the two met in April.
Although it's unknown whether Prince Abdullah and President Bush spoke specifically about the case of the reformists, in his February State of the Union address Bush did call on Saudi Arabia to make changes. "The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future," he said.
In its efforts toward reform, Saudi Arabia held limited municipal elections earlier this year. Women were not allowed to participate and elections were for half the seats in 178 municipal councils nationwide. But only 20 percent of the country's eligible voters participated and the majority of the seats went to candidates endorsed by popular clerics.
While the case of the reformists has cast doubt on the Saudis commitment to reform, it hasn't been given much attention within the kingdom where the majority of people are still deeply conservative and influenced by popular clerics. Most here are also skeptical of activists who are widely considered to be secular, analysts say.
"People in Saudi Arabia respect them for standing up for their ideas and for being willing to go to jail for them. But their ideas don't have massive appeal. They appeal mainly to the educated elite," says supporter Nawaf al-Qudaimi.
The reformists lost popular support by criticizing the conservative clerics and their influence, says Mr. Qudaimi, a journalist who used to attend weekly meetings at Abdullah al-Hamid's house before his arrest. The predominant influence in Saudi Arabia is religion and popular clerics are able to quickly galvanize thousands of supporters, as they did with Islamist candidates during the municipal elections.
In a lengthy three-hour reading of the verdict, the panel of three judges found the men guilty of criticizing government officials, the country's judiciary, and its religious ideology and clerics, and of disrespecting government institutions including its educational system, says Fawzia al-Uyooni, wife of Ali al-Domeini.
She says her husband received the harshest sentence because he had claimed that the Al Qaeda violence that had been plaguing the country was the result of the dominance of the strict Wahhabi version of Islam in Saudi Arabia to the exclusion of others, says Ms. Uyooni, who was able to attend the closed-door trial as a representative of her husband.
The staunchly conservative Saudi judiciary is one of the main bastions of power of the country's proponents of the strict Wahhabi ideology.
But critics say the trial was political and the outcome dictated by the government. "This is proof that the judiciary is not independent. The judges only rehashed the accusations brought about by the prosecution. They added nothing new," Uyooni says.
With these sentences, "the government is saying, we give you the people reforms when we want, how we want. It's not up to you to ask for the changes you want," says Mr. Alem, who was on the reformist's original defense team. "Even if they are guilty of all they have been charged with, there are no laws in Saudi Arabia that criminalize freedom of speech or opinion," Alem says.
He and four other lawyers were taken off the defense team for having signed petitions asking for political reforms. Lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem was jailed in November after speaking with foreign human rights organizations and the Western media. He has not yet been charged.
The verdict is "saying there is no way to air grievances peacefully or have a dialogue with the government. My fear is that this is playing right into the hands of the extremists. If you want change, you either go underground or you oppose the government. In my opinion it's very dangerous," says Alem.
"These men have not gone against the government," says supporter Nawaf al-Qudaimi. "They're not opposition; they're reformists. They want changes that will improve the country. All the things they've asked for are within the law, accountability, an end to corruption, a separation between the judiciary and the executive," he says.
Some 50 supporters of the reformists and a handful of journalists traveled to the capital Riyadh from all over the kingdom to attend the final hearing, which according to Saudi law should have been open. But supporters were not allowed inside the courthouse that was ringed by police who used bullhorns several times to move the crowd.
Lawyer Khaled al-Mutairi says the sentence would be appealed within 10 days as soon as he got the ruling in writing.