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Saudi Activist Still Held Without Charge a Year After His Arrest

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By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 24, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 23 -- A prominent Saudi political activist and academic remains in solitary confinement "without charge and without access to counsel" a year after he was arrested, his lawyer said Wednesday.

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Saud Mokhtar al-Hashemi, 45, was among 10 men arrested last February and accused of illegally collecting funds and sending fighters to Iraq. His lawyer and supporters say the detentions were a government attempt to silence demands for democratic reform in Saudi Arabia.

"This prolonged detention without charge and without access to counsel is illegal and in violation of the country's rules," the lawyer, Bassim Alim, said in an interview. "It is as if there is emergency law. If there is proof against them, it should be presented."

In Saudi Arabia, detainees have a right to counsel and public trials and can be held up to six months without charge. An Interior Ministry spokesman, Gen. Mansour al-Turki, said the men remained behind bars because the case is "still under investigation."

More than 65 human rights activists sent a petition to King Abdullah in September calling for the entire group's release. Later that month, one of the men, human rights lawyer Essam Basrawi, was granted a temporary release.

Hashemi, a vocal critic of the U.S. presence in Iraq, traveled there more than three times in 2003 and 2004 to distribute humanitarian aid. He spoke passionately on satellite television channels, including al-Jazeera, about the need to raise money for the Palestinians and hosted diplomats, academics and foreign politicians, including Hamas officials, at a weekly Tuesday night salon at his home.

The government warned him to stop those activities, but he refused, said one of his two wives, Hasnaa Zahrani. "He said, 'I can't see my brothers in Palestine and Iraq suffering and sit with my hands tied,' " she said. After five months in jail, Hashemi was allowed intermittent visits with his family, Zahrani said.

Hashemi was working to form a civic rights group, the National Reformist Grouping. He was arrested the day a petition by some of the men involved in the group was made public. The petition called for an elected advisory council to help rule the country, curbs on Interior Ministry powers and a more equal distribution of the country's land and wealth.

Campaigning for release of the men has taken place largely online. The group's best-known defender, Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan, was arrested in December after authorities warned him that he would be detained for his online support of the men.

Hashemi's former assistant, Ali al-Qurni, 25, a university student, was also arrested without charge in December, his brother Mohammad said. Alim, Hashemi's lawyer, said Qurni was a vocal advocate for the imprisoned men.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that does not allow public demonstrations, gatherings or the formation of political parties. Since taking the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has eased restrictions on speech and the news media. But despite his efforts, dissidents have accused the Interior Ministry of disregarding laws banning arrests without charge and guaranteeing detainees the right to counsel.

"We saw an increase in arrests of prisoners of conscience in 2007," said Matrouk al-Faleh, a prominent dissident who was jailed in 2004 for calling for a constitutional monarchy. "There has been an attempt to silence critical voices who seek to make change peacefully."

Faleh, a political science professor at King Saud University in the capital, Riyadh, and three other activists were pardoned by King Abdullah in 2005 but are banned from traveling outside the kingdom.


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