Just one more dash for freedom

October 1, 2004

As three intellectuals languish in jail in Saudi Arabia, Michael North hears how a crackdown on Islamic extremists has had a devastating impact on free speech for academics.

There is an eyewitness account of a beheading in Saudi Arabia in 2000 on the Human Rights Watch website that stops you in your tracks:

"Policemen clear a public square and lay out a thick blue plastic sheet, 16ft by 16ft. The condemned, who has been given tranquillisers, has his eyes covered with cotton pads and is covered with a black cloth. Barefoot, with feet and hands shackled he is led to the centre of the sheet and made to kneel. An Interior Ministry official reads out the prisoner's name and crime. A soldier hands a long, curved sword to the executioner, who approaches the prisoner from behind and jabs him in the back with the tip of the sword so that he instinctively raises his head. It usually takes just one swing of the sword to sever the head. Paramedics bring the head to a doctor who sews it back on and the body is wrapped in the blue plastic and taken away."

This shocking account and other chilling facts about the Saudi justice system - the intimidating internal security service and religious police ( mutawwa'in ), arbitrary arrest, detention without charge, torture and trials held in secret, widespread use of flogging and amputation and the 121 beheadings in 2000 alone (according to HRW) - leave one in no doubt about the danger that two recently detained Saudi academics find themselves in.

Matrouk al-Faleh, 51, professor of international relations at the Institute of Political Science of King Saoud University, and Abdellah al-Hamed, 54, professor of contemporary literature at the Imam Mohammed Ibn Saoud University, both in Riyadh, have been held by the Saudi security services since March 16. They were among a dozen Saudi reformers arrested after they signed a letter to the heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Abdallah Ben Abdel Aziz, demanding the right to create a Human Rights Commission independent of the official one.

In December 2003, they also signed a petition calling for the kingdom to become a constitutional monarchy. The petition attributed the growing Islamist violence to the absence of political participation and called for King Fahd to give ordinary Saudis a say in affairs of state by transforming the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one, as happened in Jordan and Bahrain. The petition for reform, signed by academics, judges and former ministers, also called for an elected parliament, an independent judiciary and equal rights for women.

Despite professing their loyalty to the King, the reformers were accused of undermining "national unity and social cohesion based on Islamic principles". Nine of those arrested were released after pledging to stop publicly lobbying for reform. Al-Faleh, al-Hamed and another detainee, the writer and poet Ali al-Damini, refused to make such a pledge.

At the end of last month, a Riyadh judge postponed the hearing of the academics' trial after proceedings were disrupted when about 200 relatives and supporters asked to enter the courtroom.

According to Essam Basrawi, the Riyadh-based lawyer representing the three intellectuals, the fact that proceedings are being held in open court at all shows progress towards penal reform in the Saudi kingdom. "This is the first political case where a lawyer can be present. It's a new penal regulation. This is good progress. Our society is getting more moderate," he says.

But Basrawi's optimism and faith in the Saudi system - he also said the detainees were "in good health and morale is good" - was questioned by Saad al-Faqih, the London-based spokesman for the Movement for Islamic Reform who fled Saudi Arabia after a spell in prison for his activism. "The regime is playing all the tactics to say that it is dealing with them in a respectable legal manner because of US interest and human rights groups'

interest. But there is nothing like a new law or procedure. The case is very fake. The bottom line is they must apologise and say they will not repeat the 'mistake'." He says the three detainees have refused "out of self-respect".

Al-Faqih says that the Saudi equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service, which referred the case to court, is run by former members of the feared intelligence services.

Haytham Manna, spokesman for the Arab Commission for Human Rights, which has special status with the United Nations in Geneva, says there is considerable pressure from human rights groups and "more than 300 intellectuals all over the world" to secure the release of the detainees - although he says a request to send a lawyer to observe the legal proceedings was refused by the Saudis.

Manna considers the case "a question of fundamental liberties in Saudi Arabia" and says the regime has a "massive opportunity" to set a reforming example for the rest of the Arab world. "If we don't have a possibility of democracy, it will be a great failure. Constitutional monarchy can save the country."

Al-Faqih, however, cannot see any possibility of reform in the present climate. "Independent human rights groups are a big threat because there is no room at all in the al-Saud (Saudi royal family) mentality for anybody to have collective thinking outside the regime."

In the past, the Saudi regime has curbed the activities of even peaceful reformers each time there has been extremist violence, as is the case now - recent attacks against the regime and Western expatriates include a car bomb targeting the interior ministry in Riyadh in April, and the siege, on May 29, at the Oasis compound in al Khobar when 22 people were killed.

Al-Faqih left Saudi Arabia after spending a month in prison following a crackdown on reformers in 1993.

Jafar M. al-Shayeb, a human rights activist in Saudi Arabia, says the arrests of the intellectuals came as a shock to reformers in the country.

"Everyone is now checking what is and what is not allowed."

He adds: "Now the Government does not expect people to demand reform. It expects them to have solidarity with the Government in this specific period. The country is under a lot of threats from violent actions."

Al-Shayeb says the present violence has set back the reform process - on September 13, for example, the Saudi Government prohibited peaceful protests including petitions for social reform. Still, Al-Shayeb says, "democracy is possible but it will come out very slowly. It's an educational process for people to understand exactly what they want and how to interact between themselves and respect different ideas and each other."

This point is picked up by Sir James Craig, the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1979 to 1984. "The Saudis proceed by consensus," he says. "The Government constantly takes into account public opinion, and it is reluctant to go against it. If the Government wants to introduce things such as a representative council, it has to go very easily."

Craig, who wrote a 200-page critique of the Saudi regime and its inability to reform that provoked Saudi ire, adds: "The (current Saudi) Government is pulled in two directions. It does not want to make concessions to extremists and at the same time it recognises that if it goes too fast (with reform), it will cause great confrontation in the country."

Craig cites examples of attempts to introduce reforms among a deeply conservative and Islamic people - education for girls in the late 1950s, the telephone system - that were abandoned after extreme public resistance and taken up again when the time seemed right. "The authorities had to read pages of the Koran down the telephone to show that the technology was not profane."

The royals, says Craig, "see the need for Saudi Arabia to catch up with the rest of the world while remaining devoutly Muslim", thus keeping the powerful Islamic clerics on side - the mooted introduction of a written constitution, for example, did not go down well with the clergy because "the religious conservatives got on their high horse and said that the Koran is our constitution".

Saudi academic Mai Yemani, associate fellow on the Middle East Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London, says she "would hate to be in the place of the liberal Saudi princes" because they risk confrontation with religious conservatives if they reform and clashes with the people if they don't.

Yemani was shocked by the arrest of the academics, whom she counts as friends, but she was not surprised. She was threatened while in the UK after the publication of her book Changed Identities, which is made up of anonymous interviews in which young Saudis discuss their frustrations, ambitions and hopes for the future. "I was in London and they threatened me and told me to stop writing and all academic activities or I would be jailed for five years. They said I had to go immediately back to the country to be interrogated, and they asked me for a letter saying I would never speak or write again."

"I thought my book would be useful for reform," Yemani adds. "It was mild.

I didn't take anybody's side."

Though she would love to return to Saudi Arabia, where she has family and friends, she realises that her appeal for a more open society is more likely to be heard outside the country than inside.

When she lectured in social anthropology and social theory at Abdul Aziz University in Jedda in the early 1980s, Yemani found that she was "compromised" and imposed "self-censorship". "I was looking at the relationship between the religious and the political, but I was always very careful in how I approached subjects. When I did my DPhil at Oxford University, I realised I could never really go back. I must have freedom of expression."

Charles Tripp, a Middle East specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, says that academics visiting Saudi Arabia will also self-censor their research: "People working there have often built up obligations to people there. They only go there if a Saudi has vouched for them. There is a feeling of betrayal about divulging too much."

Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and a Middle East specialist, adds: "The issue of censorship in the Gulf is a huge one. All my books in Arabic translation are banned in the Gulf states along with other non-Muslim and liberal Muslim writers.

Censorship has got worse, not better, in these states and no one protests."

Yemani's experience shows the reach of Saudi influence. Both she and Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi academic at King's College London, say that any Saudi funding of researchers in the UK comes with many strings attached. Al-Rasheed says: "Saudi academics who are sent by their government to take research fellowships or temporary lectureships here in the UK cannot afford to have an independent position because of their dependency on their government's resources. They keep a low profile.

"The Saudi Ministry of Education approves the titles and topics of PhD theses by Saudis who study abroad. I have had Saudi students who expressed that they wanted to study a social or political problem but their topic is not approved by the ministry. They have to change the topic and choose what is permissible."

Al-Faqih attributes the relative media silence on the academics' arrests to the power of the Saudi regime to suppress information globally - he says the regime jammed his group's radio output in Saudi and has stopped any Saudi reporting of the trial of the academics.

He believes the biggest barrier to breaking this monopoly of power in the kingdom is psychological - the Saudi Arabian people perceive that they can do nothing against the royal family. But al-Faqih adds: "The regime is ageing, and there is no collective inside the royal family. At least two of its members are demented. People are demanding power-sharing. Once the impression that the regime is strong disappears, things will move very quickly."

Things may not move quickly enough, however, for the three intellectuals languishing in a Riyadh jail. Al-Faqih says: "They are in danger. It is easy to order any judge to incriminate them and to say they are encroaching on the authority of the leader."

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