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King Abdullah should immediately pardon two leading reformers sentenced by a Saudi court on Wednesday for encouraging a peaceful demonstration, Human Rights Watch said today.

Judge Ibrahim Husni of the Partial Court in Buraida, north of Riyadh, sentenced Professor Abdullah al-Hamid and his brother ‘Isa al-Hamid to four and six months in prison, respectively. The Investigation and Public Prosecution Department had charged the brothers with violating a security cordon and instigating a public demonstration. Judge Husni’s verdict cited the necessity to punish the two brothers because their actions may lead to acts forbidden in Islam.

“This verdict against the al-Hamid brothers shows that the Saudi government’s talk of human rights reform is just that – talk,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The incident, which led to the two men’s prosecution, occurred on July 16, when several women whose husbands and relatives had remained in Saudi intelligence prisons for over two years without charge, trial or access to legal counsel staged a peaceful demonstration in front of intelligence offices in Buraida to demand the release or trial of their relatives.

One of the women, Rima al-Juraish, had been in telephone contact with Abdullah al-Hamid, a former Islamic law professor, who represents her detained husband, Muhammad al-Hamili. According to observers at the al-Hamids’ trial, the prosecution submitted transcripts of their telephone records and text messages in court, in which Abdullah al-Hamid urged the women to continue in their protest, saying it was lawful. The authorities had not obtained any warrant allowing the surveillance of al-Hamid’s or al-Juraish’s communications.

Al-Juraish called Abdullah al-Hamid two days later when intelligence forces were about to arrest her at home. The al-Hamid brothers arrived on the scene and demanded to see an arrest warrant, but found themselves under arrest instead. Trial observers reported that, contrary to assertions by the prosecution, security officers testified that the al-Hamid brothers did not violate the security cordon around al-Juraish’s house.

The judge only briefly opened the trial to supporters on October 21, and to the media on November 7. Intelligence officers noted names of those wishing to attend. The trial was unprecedented in Saudi Arabia for allowing a measure of due process and for not barring defense lawyers or arresting them, as had happened in Abdullah al-Hamid’s trial in 2004 and 2005 for publicly advocating constitutional reform. The defendants also submitted a memorandum in court on the unhygienic conditions and widespread torture in the prison where they spent several days before being granted bail. The women protesters had also raised concerns about reports that their husbands suffered repeated abuse at the hands of their jailers.

“This judgment reinforces the Saudi reality that the courts are complicit in denying citizens the right to peacefully assemble and legitimately criticize the authorities,” said Whitson.

Article 35 of the Saudi Law on Criminal Procedure obliges law enforcement officials to carry out arrests only with a warrant. Article 155 stipulates that trials can only exceptionally be closed to the public. Article 55 requires surveillance of communications be carried out only with a warrant.

Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code. Violating a security cordon and instigating a demonstration are not recognizable criminal offenses.

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