A court in Riyadh yesterday sentenced three reformers to lengthy prison terms for circulating a petition that called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said.
`Ali al-Domaini, Dr. Matruk al-Falih and Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to prison terms of nine, six and seven years respectively for circulating the petition, which they submitted to Crown Prince `Abdullah in January 2003. The judges’ ruling was not available at the time of sentencing, but is expected to be made public in 10 days.
"For all its talk of democratic reforms, the Saudi government is imposing long prison terms on those who call for peaceful political change," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East & North Africa Division. "In handing down such brutal sentences, the Saudi authorities are trampling on the right to free speech."
The three men have been under arrest since March 16, 2004. The charges against them reportedly include incitement to unrest, attempting to disturb the peace, rebelling against the ruler, speaking to foreign media, and incitement against the Wahhabi school of Islam. Using the defendants’ petition and other writings as evidence, the judges found that they had overstepped the bounds of criticism by challenging the king’s authority, according to press reports.
The three men have consistently refused to sign a pledge to refrain from any further criticism of the government in return for having the charges against them dropped. Initially, 10 other individuals who supported the reform petition had been arrested together with the three defendants in March 2004. The government released these 10 detainees shortly after they agreed to sign a pledge to cease publicly speaking out for reform.
The three remaining defendants refused to be silenced. On May 9, `Ali al-Domaini published a letter on the Internet calling on Saudi Arabia to honor its commitment to guarantee free speech under article 32 of the Arab Declaration of Human Rights, which it finally signed in August 2004 in a revised version adopted at the 16th Summit of the Arab League in Tunis in May 2004.
The three defendants also presented a detailed rebuttal of the charges against them in a 150-page document published on the Internet.
The hearings against the men have been conducted in camera, and attorneys for the defendants have faced imprisonment and harassment. The court held the first hearing against the three defendants in public on August 10. The hearing was attended by international observers and many family members and supporters. Afterwards, the judges closed the hearings to the public, citing overcrowding. Family members of the accused and journalists have also been detained.
On November 9, `Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, a lawyer for the defendants and one of those who were released after signing the pledge following their initial detention in March 2004, was re-arrested and jailed in the al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh, and charged in January 2005 for violating that pledge. He remains in al-Ha’ir prison. Later, the court dismissed without any apparent reason three other members of the defense team: `Abdullah al-Nasiri, Sulaiman al-Rashudi and `Abd al-`Aziz al-Wahaibi.
"The court’s handling of the proceedings undermined any chance for a fair trial," said Whitson. "Justice cannot be served when their family members and defense lawyers are arrested and disqualified and court proceedings are shielded from public scrutiny."
The sentences come on the heels of historic municipal elections, completed in April of this year, when Saudi male citizens were permitted to elect, for the first time, half of their all-male representatives in the local councils. The government retained the power to appoint the other half of the council.
“Reforms like limited elections will ring hollow unless Saudi citizens can freely express their political views," said Whitson. "The Saudi government urgently needs to undertake reforms that fully protect the civil and political rights of all its citizens.”
Human Rights Watch called on Crown Prince `Abdullah to immediately void the ruling and order the release of the three sentenced reformers.