Saudi King Pardons 3 Jailed Dissidents and Their Ally

By Steve Coll
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 9, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 8 -- Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Monday night ordered the pardon and release of three prominent political dissidents and their attorney who had been imprisoned for holding meetings and signing petitions advocating a new constitution for the kingdom.

The 18-month imprisonment of the four men -- two university scholars, a poet and their attorney -- had galvanized protests from international human rights groups and prompted a rare public rebuke of Saudi Arabia's autocratic political system from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Lawyers and associates of the reformers described the pardon as an encouraging signal that Abdullah intends to relax the strictures on public debate about the kingdom's political system and social problems, and that he may also ease the interrogations, threats and forced confessions routinely faced by Saudis who speak out about controversial issues. Abdullah took the throne last week after the death of his half brother, King Fahd.

"I hope the justice system will understand this message," said Khalid Abdullah Nasari, an attorney for one of the freed dissidents. He said the kingdom needed a legal system that could "deal with political opinions and see them as opinions, not as political acts." Scholars Matrouk Faleh and Abdullah Hamed and poet Ali Dumaini were among a dozen reformers arrested in February 2004, following a meeting at a Riyadh hotel called to debate political change and advance a petition advocating a new constitution that would expand the rights of citizens in the kingdom.

A fourth activist, lawyer Abdul-Rahman Lahem, was jailed soon after for denouncing the arrests. Some of those initially arrested signed statements of loyalty to the government and were released; the four who refused to do so were convicted in a closed trial and imprisoned.

The men's release, announced in a brief statement on Saudi television, was accompanied Monday night by the pardon and release of an Islamic scholar, Saeed bin Mubarak Zaeer, who had been jailed on terrorism-related charges because of televised statements that the Saudi government said had endorsed the violent tactics of Osama bin Laden.

The simultaneous releases appeared to be a typical act of political balancing by the Saudi government, which faces opposition from both dissidents seeking free speech and constitutional change and Islamic radicals who accuse the ruling royal family of subservience to the West.

"It's a message of the new era," said Adel Toraifi, a representative of Lahem, the lawyer. "Abdullah wants to show his strength. He wants to show that he -- not anyone else -- controls the security of Saudi Arabia, not the Interior Minister," a reference to Saudi Arabia's powerful security chief, Prince Nayef, who controls the country's police and domestic secret services and is seen by many reformers as a staunch opponent of democratic change.

The releases also appeared to be a response to rare public pressure by the United States about a specific human rights case in the kingdom. In a June 19 speech advocating democratic reform across the Middle East, Rice complained that "many people pay an unfair price for exercising their basic rights" in Saudi Arabia. Speaking of the charges that sent the four reform advocates to prison, Rice said: "That should not be a crime in any country."

While praising the releases, some associates of the freed reformers complained that by using a royal pardon, Abdullah had only reinforced the idea that all power in Saudi Arabia flows from the king. The pardon "suggests they did something wrong in the first place," said Bassim Alim, a lawyer and activist who signed the reform petitions but was not arrested. "The issues of due process were completely circumvented" because there was no retrial or precedent established in Saudi courts, he said.

Alim said he expected some of the released dissidents to continue to challenge the government about constitutional change. "The next weeks or months are going to be full of testing the waters and brinksmanship on many levels," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company