Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Whatever Happened to Saudi Reform?

From BBC - February 6, 2008

Whatever happened to Saudi reform?

saudi women
Some are accused of fomenting protest among Saudi women

By Roger Hardy
Middle East analyst, BBC News

In February 2007 the Saudi secret police stormed the Jeddah villa of lawyer Issam Basrawi and arrested him and five other prominent reformists.

Four others were arrested in Jeddah and nearby Medina.

The 10 men were professional people - lawyers, doctors, academics, a former judge.

A year on, although Mr Basrawi has been released on health grounds, the rest are still in jail - even though none has been formally charged.

A lawyer representing some of the men says he has been denied access to them.

At the time of their arrest, the Saudi media alleged the men were financing acts of violence in Iraq and encouraging young Saudis to join the insurgency there.

One of the detainees, Saud al-Hashemi, was active in organising humanitarian aid for Iraq - and was strongly critical of the US presence there.

But the men's supporters are convinced their real crime was speaking out for political reform.

At the time of their arrest they were preparing to launch a reformist movement - and there is a suspicion the authorities wanted to nip their plans in the bud.

Hope betrayed

The current climate is in marked contrast to that in 2005, when King Abdullah came to the throne promising change.

Both Saudi and international human-rights activists believe 2007 witnessed an intensification of pressure on political dissent.

The current climate is in marked contrast to that in 2005, when King Abdullah came to the throne promising change.

Having pinned their hopes on him, reformists now feel he has failed to deliver.

Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan has been detained since December for speaking out on behalf of the jailed reformists.

Veteran Islamist Abdullah al-Hamed - who organised a petition last year calling for a constitutional monarchy - was arrested with his brother in November.

They were accused of encouraging a women's demonstration - a highly unusual event in the conservative kingdom - over the detention of thousands of al-Qaeda suspects.

But despite the pattern of arrest and harassment, the pressure for reform continues.

A group of reformists have posted a petition online on the Menber al-Hewar website, calling for the release of the nine reformists and their ally, the blogger Fouad al-Farhan.

Women's rights activists are openly pressing for the right to drive.

And liberal and Islamist reformists are joining hands to condemn a legal system which - despite the promise of judicial reform - is failing to protect their rights.

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