Saudi Arabia has begun the judicial process for putting on trial nearly 1,000 suspected Al Qaeda militants accused of terrorist-related crimes dating back to 2003, the Saudi Interior Minister announced.
"We have started to bring before the judiciary 991 people implicated in various incidents," Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz told the Saudi Press News Agency late Monday. "Each case will be examined in stages."
This is the first time the government has disclosed the number of defendants accused in connection with the wave of terrorist violence that hit the nation.
Prince Naif said that 90 civilians, both foreigners and Saudis, were killed in 30 violent operations between May 2003, when three residential compounds in Riyadh were targets of suicide bombers, and a foiled attack on an oil-processing plant in 2006.
In addition, 74 members of Saudi security forces died as a result of the violent campaign of "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," as the extremist movement here called itself, according to the official statement carrying Prince Naif's remarks.
The minister added that 657 members of the security forces and 439 civilians had been wounded in the attacks, and that state security forces had foiled more than 160 "terrorist operations."
On Monday, the Interior Ministry delivered charging documents involving some of the defendants to a Saudi court in what appears to be formal indictments.
The Justice Ministry has not yet announced a date for the first in what will be a series of trials that are expected to take place in Riyadh, Damman, and Jeddah. The venue of each proceeding will be determined by the location of the terrorist incident involved in that particular trial.
The trials will take place within the regular court system, which is based on Islamic law, or sharia.
A government source said the first trial is expected to focus on the May 12, 2003, simultaneous suicide attacks on three residential compounds in Riyadh, which killed 35, including nine extremists, and injured 160.
About 70 suspects are charged in connection with those attacks.
Saudi officials previously have said that the cell responsible for those assaults had been organized by Turki Al Dandani. He headed the list of most-wanted Saudis issued May 7, 2003, just five days before the attacks took place. He was later killed in the Saudi city of Jouf during a violent clash with police forces in July 2003.
Last month, Prince Naif told a group of visitors that the suspects "all will be transferred to the judiciary to give its verdict on them in accordance with what God has ordained to prevent sedition.... We don't punish anybody except on the basis of a court verdict," local papers reported.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has requested permission of the Saudi government to observe the trials.
Saudi court proceedings are normally closed, and judges have wide discretion about who can enter the courtroom. Even foreign diplomats are often denied access to hearings involving their nationals.
The 2003 attacks by extremists imbued with the ideology of Al Qaeda became a seismic event in official Saudi perceptions of their internal terrorist threat, leading Saudis to be more critical of Al Qaeda-type rhetoric and militant jihadi organizations. They also prompted increased vigilance and more organized policing
In the five years since, the government appears to have dealt deadly blows to internal militant groups, which seem to be far weaker than in 2003.