HRW: Saudi Arabia's reform punished for exercising free speech
Saudi Arabia, Politics, 5/17/2005
Speaking about the court decision in Riyadh Sunday where three reformers Ali al-Domaini, Dr. Matruk al-Falih and Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for circulating a petition that called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia, Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East And North Africa Division said "For all its talk of democratic reforms, the Saudi government is imposing long prison terms on those who call for peaceful political change."
Whitson added "In handing down such brutal sentences, the Saudi authorities are trampling on the right to free speech."
Human Rights Watch said "The three men have consistently refused to sign a pledge to refrain from any further criticism of the government in return for having the charges against them dropped. Initially, 10 other individuals who supported the reform petition had been arrested together with the three defendants in March 2004. The government released these 10 detainees shortly after they agreed to sign a pledge to cease publicly speaking out for reform."
HRW added: The three remaining defendants refused to be silenced. On May 9, Ali al-Domaini published a letter on the Internet calling on Saudi Arabia to honor its commitment to guarantee free speech under article 32 of the Arab Declaration of Human Rights, which it finally signed in August 2004 in a revised version adopted at the 16th Summit of the Arab League in Tunis in May 2004.
The hearings against the men have been conducted in camera, and attorneys for the defendants have faced imprisonment and harassment, the report said. On November 9, Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, a lawyer for the defendants and one of those who were released after signing the pledge following their initial detention in March 2004, was re-arrested and jailed in the al-Ha'ir prison in Riyadh, and charged in January 2005 for violating that pledge. He remains in al-Ha'ir prison. Later, the court dismissed without any apparent reason three other members of the defense team: Abdullah al-Nasiri, Sulaiman al-Rashudi and Abd al-Aziz al-Wahaibi.
Human Rights Watch said"The court's handling of the proceedings undermined any chance for a fair trial," said Whitson. "Justice cannot be served when their family members and defense lawyers are arrested and disqualified and court proceedings are shielded from public scrutiny." HRW added "Reforms like limited elections will ring hollow unless Saudi citizens can freely express their political views," said Whitson. "The Saudi government urgently needs to undertake reforms that fully protect the civil and political rights of all its citizens." HRW called on voiding these sentences.
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