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Saudi Arabia should lift politically motivated bans on foreign travel it has imposed on prominent government critics, Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent to King Abdullah on February 9. The Ministry of Interior has imposed the travel bans without regard to Saudi or international law and has refused to hear the appeals for relief from many of the men subject to the bans.

“By imposing travel bans, the Saudi government is restricting the movement of leading intellectuals, diminishing their ability to work for a better future for the Saudi people through an international exchange of ideas,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

In its letter to the king, Human Rights Watch details travel bans that the Ministry of Interior has imposed on 22 persons, including Matruk Alfalih, Abdullah al-Hamid, and `Ali al-Dumaini, three constitutional and political reformers whom the king pardoned in August 2005 after they had received lengthy prison sentences for their writings.

Saudi authorities had arrested them on March 16, 2004 along with nine others, later released, for signing a petition for reform. Seven of them remain banned from foreign travel, including `Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, their lawyer. Nine others received travel bans for publicly supporting the reforms. Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, president of Human Rights First in Saudi Arabia, found out in January that he is again on the travel ban list. Mubarak bin Zu’air ended up at first detained and then on the list after protesting on Al Jazeera his father’s and his brother’s incarceration for speaking to the media.

Underlying these bans appears to be the government’s desire to punish its critics and to prevent their views from reaching a foreign audience. Matruk Alfalih, a professor of political science at King Sa`ud University in Riyadh, has been unable to take up a sabbatical position at the University of Seattle in the United States.

In imposing the travel bans, the Ministry of Interior has broken Saudi law. Aside from a judicial ruling by a court, the Minister of Interior may impose bans “for defined reasons related to security and for a known period” and must notify those banned within one week of the ban. In its letter, Human Rights Watch describes how some of those banned found out about their bans at airports, land crossings and passport departments months or years after they were imposed. Saudi authorities verbally informed some that the ban would last for five years. In no case did the ministry inform those on the travel ban list of the specific reasons for subjecting them to the ban.

Saudi courts have refused to hear challenges to the travel bans. Al-Lahim attempted to challenge his ban in an administrative court, but the Board of Grievances struck down his suit for lack of jurisdiction over “acts of sovereignty,” though not before noting that he had violated a pledge obtained under duress in prison not to speak publicly about his three reformist clients.

Human Rights Watch raised the issue of these travel bans in November 2006 during a fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia with officials in the Ministry of Interior and in the governmental Human Rights Commission. Dr. Ahmad al-Salim, a high-ranking Ministry of Interior official, promised to investigate the bans, but to date, Human Rights Watch has not heard back from the ministry.

These travel bans violate international human rights law which guarantees everyone the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Saudi authorities also use other methods to muzzle critics at home. Professors Sa`id bin Zu’air and Abdullah al-Hamid in the 1990s lost their positions at Imam Muhammad University for their outspoken views; the Ministry of Interior has banned both from traveling. In September 2006, Saudi authorities arrested Wajeha al-Huwaider, a women’s rights activist, and briefly banned her from traveling in addition to extracting a pledge from her not to publicly protest again for women’s rights. In November 2006, prominent Saudi newspaper writers received official notice prohibiting them from publishing any article. They include Qinan al-Ghamidi, who writes in al-Watan newspaper, Khalid al-Dakhil, who writes in al-Hayat newspaper and for Saudi Debate, an internet site, and Sa`d al-Suwayan, who writes for UAE-based Aleqtisadiah newspaper and Saudi Debate. Several journalists told Human Rights Watch that the Medina bureau chief for al-Watan newspaper was arrested by the country’s secret police for several days on the basis of two articles he had written.

Saudi Arabia stifles internal debate beyond the media. On November 13, 2006, King Abdullah issued a circular prohibiting any government employee from “opposing the policies or programs of the state ... by participating in any discussion through media channels or through domestic or foreign communications.”

During Human Rights Watch’s 2006 visit to Saudi Arabia, intellectuals told researchers that Ministry of Interior officials had phoned them in Riyadh, Dammam and Najran and ordered their discussion salons closed. Furthermore, several liberal internet discussion sites became inaccessible from within Saudi Arabia, including Jasad al-Thaqafa, al-Hurriya, and Wadi Najran.

“If Saudi Arabia wants to improve its image abroad, it should allow its leading intellectuals to travel abroad and share their visions of the country’s future,” Whitson said. “The Saudi royal family should ask itself how long it wants to continue banning, firing and arresting its critics, and at what cost.”

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