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Saudi Arabia: Bush Should Call for Dissidents’ Release

Credibility of President’s Call for Mideast Reform at Stake

U.S. President George W. Bush should call on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah to immediately release three dissidents imprisoned for more than a year for petitioning for a constitutional monarchy, Human Rights Watch said today on the eve of the de facto Saudi ruler’s visit.

In a letter to the U.S. president, Human Rights Watch also called for charges against the three Saudi dissidents to be dropped, and said that their lead lawyer, who was arrested in early November, should also be released and charges against him dropped. During the Saudi leader’s visit, Bush should urge Saudi authorities to appoint women to the recently formed municipal councils, and to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

“Without freedom of expression and association, there can’t be political reform worthy of the name,” said Joe Stork, Washington director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “The Bush administration’s response to the dissidents’ arrest has been completely inadequate. For the sake of its own credibility, it needs to speak clearly and publicly now.”

In March 2004, Saudi authorities arrested 13 people in several cities for circulating a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, and signaling their intent to form an independent human rights organization. The government released 10 of them after compelling them to sign an agreement that they would cease their public petitioning.

Three of the men — Matruk al-Falih, Ali al-Domaini, and Abdullah al-Hamid — refused to sign the statement, and remain in prison facing charges of “issuing statements” and “using Western terminology” in calling for reform. Their lead lawyer, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, one of the 10 released in March, has been detained since early November for statements he made to the press about the case.

“President Bush should raise the cases of these dissidents by name when he meets with Crown Prince Abdullah,” Stork said. “He needs to point out that vague proclamations of reform will be judged by what happens to people who peacefully petition their government for change.”

Human Rights Watch said that official promises that women would be allowed to vote when municipal elections are held again were not reassuring, and asked President Bush to urge the Saudi leader to take “concrete, feasible steps towards ending gender discrimination” by appointing women to unelected seats on the municipal councils as well as to the national level Consultative (Shura) Council, which is wholly appointed.

Human Rights Watch noted that Saudi Arabia had publicly beheaded at least 40 persons since the beginning of the year, two-thirds of them from south and Southeast Asia. A number of those executed had been convicted of robbery and drug-related offenses. The letter asked President Bush, in light of the absence of basic due process protections in the Saudi judicial system, to urge the Crown Prince to declare a moratorium on all judicial executions.

To read the Human Rights Watch letter to President Bush, please see:

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