JUST OVER A YEAR AGO, 13 prominent Saudi reformers were rounded up in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam and thrown into prison. They had signed a petition asking for a constitutional monarchy to replace the absolute monarchy now reigning in Saudi Arabia. As is common in the kingdom, no charges were formally brought against the men, but the reason given for the arrests was that the reformers were destabilizing the country by "introducing Western terminology in asking for change."
According to their lawyer, "The reformers were calling for a written constitution to protect people's rights and decrease the unlimited powers of political institutions." The reformers argued that the Koran and sharia (Islamic law) are not inconsistent with democratic practices. Their call for power-sharing, however, was considered an affront to what the Saud family sees as its ownership by divine right of the nation it named after itself in 1932.
The reformers were given a choice: They could sign affidavits agreeing not to petition or speak publicly about democratic reform or travel outside the country, or they could remain in prison. After some time, 10 of the 13 signed the affidavits and were released. The remaining three--Matruk Alfaleh, a professor of political science at King Saud University, Abdullah Al-Hamed, professor of literature at Imam Mohammed University, and poet Ali Al-Doumaini--are in prison to this day.
These three also refused to be tried in closed court. They demanded a public trial, and a public hearing was scheduled for August 23, 2004. When the day came, however, and about 300 family members and supporters poured into the courthouse, the judge deemed it necessary to postpone the hearing indefinitely. Just recently, on March 15, the reformers were brought back to court, but they refused to answer questions unless the proceedings were open and the media and their lawyers were present. An argument broke out, and the judge delayed the hearing. Given the record of Saudi Arabia's religious judicial system, no one is expecting an open and fair trial.
Ironically, the initial arrests were made when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was visiting Saudi Arabia and around the time King Fahd decreed the opening of the government's "National Commission for Human Rights." Secretary Powell's only response was that the United States does not like it when people get arrested for expressing their opinions. This is typical of the administration's mixed messages to democratic reformers. While President Bush's calls for reform resonate all over the Arab world and are changing the political landscape, concrete opportunities to show clear support for courageous Saudi activists are allowed to slip away.
Surely it is time for the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress to stop regarding the Saudi royal family as sacrosanct and start holding them accountable for their violations of human rights. Defeating terrorism and eradicating religious extremism and intolerance require a genuine overhaul of Saudi political, social, religious, and economic institutions. If democratizing Saudi Arabia is left to the House of Saud, we can expect only window dressing in place of reform, while religious extremism is allowed to flourish, and the export of a dangerous ideology continues apace.
Ali H. Alyami is director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (www.cdhr.info).