Saudis to Support

Sunday, May 22, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH has publicly cited Saudi Arabia's local and limited council elections as evidence that the kingdom is joining a regional shift toward greater political freedom. Better that he talk about Ali Dumaini, Matrouk Faleh and Abdullah Hamed, three intellectuals who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms last Sunday for advocating liberal democracy. Sadly, their trial was a clearer signal about where Saudi Arabia is headed than was the local balloting trumpeted by the president.

The three men, a poet and two professors, were arrested along with 10 others in March 2004, after they joined in circulating an independent petition calling for a peaceful transition by Saudi Arabia to constitutional democracy. Mr. Dumaini, who received the stiffest sentence of nine years, further offended his captors by describing the Saudi educational system and Wahhabi religious ideology as causes of extremism -- an observation that by now is obvious to anyone following the stream of Saudi recruits for extremist causes ranging from the Sept. 11 attacks to the Iraqi insurgency. Ten of the dissidents were released after they signed pledges not to make further public statements or talk to the foreign press. When the others bravely refused, they were put on trial.

The trial process simply served to demonstrate why the intellectuals' original dissent was justified. One open session was held last August; when supporters of the accused appeared there, the judge closed all subsequent sessions. Several lawyers for the defense were disqualified, and one was himself arrested after he refused to keep quiet. Inside the court, prosecutors accused the intellectuals of such crimes as "disobeying rulers" and speaking to foreign journalists.

In a country where al Qaeda has been active and extremist groups recruit young men for suicide attacks against Iraqi and American soldiers, these would seem to be fairly minor offenses. Yet a Saudi government that has seen fit to pardon associates of al Qaeda proposes to imprison three intellectuals for six, seven and nine years for suggesting that a democratic rule of law gradually replace the power monopoly of the Saudi royal family. The message to society is clear: no independent reform movements, however small or moderate, will be tolerated; any change in Saudi Arabia will be dictated from above.

The Bush administration's response to this outrage has been disappointingly muted. On Wednesday the State Department belatedly declared itself "troubled by the outcome" of the case, adding with almost comical understatement that the trials "appear to have been conducted in a somewhat irregular fashion." Mr. Bush himself has been silent. That doesn't sound like the president who, in his last inaugural address, promised "democratic reformers facing repression" that "when you stand for your liberty we will stand with you." If he is to keep faith with those words, Mr. Bush should stand up for Ali Dumaini, Matrouk Faleh and Abdullah Hamed.

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