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The confirmation of harsh prison sentences against three Saudi advocates of peaceful reform will chill Saudi Arabia’s reform movement, Human Rights Watch said today. Only a royal pardon can free the reformists now. An appellate court in Riyadh upheld the lengthy prison sentences in a decision verbally communicated to their legal representatives on July 23.

“Saudi judges seem unable or unwilling to protect Saudi citizens from arbitrary detention when they try to exercise basic rights like free speech,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch. “Instead, they have backed the government’s relentless repression of all peaceful political criticism.”

A general court in Riyadh had sentenced `Ali al-Dumaini, Dr. Matruk al-Falih and Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid on May 15, 2005, to prison terms of between six and nine years after they attempted to circulate a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia.

The verdict did not specify which laws the defendants had violated, but found that they had “address[ed] the public and appeal[ed] to it in respect of critical issues concerning the system of rule” and engaged in “criticism of the people charged with authority in the Islamic regime” in a manner “contrary to the principle of mutual advice with the ruler.” None of these charges is codified as a punishable offense under Saudi law, which follows Islamic law, or shari`a.

“The government is relying on vaguely defined offenses that it can apply arbitrarily to silence citizens critical of the government,” Whitson said. “The Saudi Foreign Minister publicly stated his view that Saudi Arabia would become a constitutional monarchy, but three months later the government jailed these ordinary citizens for advocating exactly this.”

The three men were among 12 petitioners arrested in March 2004. Over the following weeks, Saudi security forces pressured the detainees to sign a pledge to stop all future political petition activity in return for their release. The government released the nine detainees who signed the pledge, but continued with its prosecution of `Ali al-Dumaini, Dr. Matruk al-Falih and Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid because they refused.

In addition to prosecuting the men on charges that had no legal basis, the government denied the men basic due process rights, Human Rights Watch said. The court refused to grant the men their request for a public trial, insisting on holding all sessions on camera. Furthermore, the general court judge denied the men access to counsel of their choice. The judge also imprisoned the lead lawyer, Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, in November 2004 after he spoke on television about the case. He remains in jail without charge.

Human Rights Watch called on Crown Prince `Abdullah to immediately pardon `Ali al-Dumaini, Dr. Matruk al-Falih and Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid and order their release, as well as that of Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim.

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