By Andrew Hammond

REUTERS

7:09 a.m. February 4, 2008

RIYADH – U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has continued to crack down on opposition to the royal family’s iron grip after the accession of reform-leaning King Abdullah, but accusations have avoided direct mention of reform activities. Although King Abdullah came to power in 2005 promising a new era of cautious reforms, the world’s biggest oil exporter has seen a string of arrests of activists seeking a measure of democracy and an end to heavy-handed treatment of critics.

‘2007 has been the year of detentions, a year of sacrifices for reformers. It has not been as intense as this in many years,‘ said Misfer Wadie, a political activist.

In the early 1990s dozens of activists, many of them clerics, were thrown in jail for criticising the royal family through calls for political and economic accountability.

And in 2005 three prominent reformist intellectuals were sentenced to seven years for sowing dissent and challenging the royal family, in an undisguised attempt to silence critics.

When King Abdullah came to power later that year he pardoned the men, and since then the Interior Ministry has tarred its opponents as sympathisers of Islamist militants, threats to public order, or simply said nothing at all.

Anything but mention of the one thing that all the detainees of the past year have in common, despite different political backgrounds – their campaigning for reform.

None have been publicly accused of lobbying for political change in a country of 24 million with no elected parliament, no political parties, no right to public protest and no constitution to regulate the powers of its absolute monarchy.

A year ago 10 men were arrested for allegedly collecting donations to fund terrorism. A lawyer for some of the men said they were reform activists. Nine remain in indefinite detention with no charges pressed, and some are in solitary confinement.

‘Perhaps their only crime is that they said what many people in this country are thinking and asked for things that many people want,’ Hasnaa al-Zahrani, the wife of Islamist government critic Saud Mukhtar al-Hashimi, said in a statement.

Colleagues say Hashimi planned to set up a political movement called the ‘Rally for Reform’.

Saudi blogger Fouad Farhan has been detained since December after running an online campaign over the detentions, saying the ‘terror finance’ charge could not be taken seriously.

And in November a court jailed Abdullah and Isa al-Hamed, Islamist critics of government, to six months in jail for encouraging women to stage rare protests over the detention of some 3,000 men in the government’s effort to crush al Qaeda militants. Hundreds have been arrested over the past year.

Abdullah al-Hamed was also found guilty of trying to ‘breach a security cordon’ and arguing with security guards.

He happened to be the leading figure involved in organising a petition to the king in 2007 calling for parliamentary democracy and severely critical of police control methods.

Others have been in and out of detention in a revolving door of arrest, release and re arrest.

 

FAMILY STRUGGLE

 

Rights groups say activists have been encouraged by the atmosphere of openness promoted by King Abdullah, who is portrayed in the media as a supporter of social, economic and political reforms in a country trying to shed its closed image.

‘I see the arrests over the past year, and other government violations of human rights, as a clear sign that Saudi reformists are emboldened, despite slow governmental change,’ said Christoph Wilcke of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Observers view the recent spate of arrests in the context of a struggle within the royal family. They say powerful half-brothers of the king are allied with clerics to stymie reformers, who have high hopes in the ageing leader.

‘I see a lot of dark clouds for the future if reformers fail to make real progress,’ Wadie said. ‘If things go on as they are now it will not be a surprise if the conservatives take over.’

U.S. pressure has also largely withered away since 2004 and 2005, when Washington was stridently promoting a democracy agenda in the Arab world after its 2003 invasion of Iraq.

President George W. Bush performed a Bedouin sword dance in front of TV cameras with Saudi royals during a visit last month, but he said nothing about the fate of political reform.

sign on SanDiego

 

 

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