By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 19, 2007
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, May 18 -- Two men have been arrested in recent weeks in a widening terrorism investigation that political activists say is a government attempt to silence demands for democratic reform.
The detainees, Saleh Qassim and Walid al-Omari, are close associates of Saud Mukhtar al-Hashemi, a prominent activist who was among 10 people arrested in February on accusations that they collected money to send Saudis to fight in Iraq. The men have not been charged.
Hashemi, a professor and doctor, had criticized the Saudi government for not doing enough to help civilians in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. Qassim was his secretary, and Omari was his close associate and a university student, said Hashemi's wife, Asma al-Zahrani.
Hashemi and several of the men were arrested at the beach house of Essam Basrawi, a lawyer who was also arrested, while discussing the formation of a civic rights group, said Bassim Alim, a lawyer who represents several of the detained men.
Alim said he has not been allowed to see his clients, nor have their families.
"They were not involved in any terrorism financing. It has to be quite clear that this situation has to do with the resistance [to] political rights," Alim said.
He said he had planned to attend the meeting at the beach house but had fallen ill and did not go. He has since been barred from traveling outside the kingdom but was not given a reason.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, does not allow political parties or independent human rights or civic organizations. The country has an appointed advisory council, but its suggestions are not binding. Limited municipal elections were held in 2005.
Hashemi had traveled to Qatar for interviews on the pan-Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera and to Iraq at the beginning of the U.S. invasion to deliver humanitarian aid, said Zahrani, his wife.
He also held a weekly salon and openly collected money for Iraqi orphans, Zahrani said.
Authorities summoned Hashemi several times and asked him to end his fundraising activities, salon, al-Jazeera appearances and meetings with Hamas officials, Zahrani said. But he refused.
Hashemi and some of the other detainees had planned to announce the formation of the National Reformist Grouping, Zahrani said. He had worried about being arrested after the announcement but "didn't expect to get arrested before they went public," she said.
The day they were arrested, a petition by some of the men involved in the group was made public. It called for an elected advisory council, curbs on the powers of the Interior Ministry and a more equal distribution of the country's wealth and land.
The document criticized travel restrictions on activists, bans on public demonstrations and threats of dismissal for state employees who express opinions contrary to the government's.
Some analysts say that political activism was not a factor in the arrests but that the Saudi government detained the group to investigate potential terrorism funding.
"They're clamping down on exactly what the United States has asked them to: money going into conflict zones," said Tanya Hsu, an analyst based in Riyadh. "If they were raising funds to be sent overseas, they'll have come under the radar of the Interior Ministry, whatever the money was going for, because that's illegal."
But Christoph Wilcke, a representative of Human Rights Watch, said the fact that the men were known activists who had just launched a petition and were about to form a civic rights group belies the accusation of terrorism funding.
"The circumstances of their arrests, the timing, who they were and the subsequent total official silence speak to the fact that there is more involved than the suspicion of financing terrorism," Wilcke said from Riyadh.