Sunday, April 24, 2005


By William Fisher

A major U.S. civil liberties group is calling on President George W. Bush to demand release of dissidents, appointment of women to municipal councils, and an end to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia when that country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Abdullah, meets with the president today (April 25).

In a letter to Bush, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the president to call on the Crown Prince to immediately release three dissidents imprisoned for more than a year for petitioning for a constitutional monarchy.
HRW wrote that “Charges against the three Saudi dissidents should be dropped”, and said that their lead lawyer, who was arrested in early November, should also be released and charges against him dropped”

It also called on the president to use the occasion of Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to “urge Saudi authorities to appoint women to the recently formed municipal councils, and to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.”

"Without freedom of expression and association, there can't be political
reform worthy of the name," said Joe Stork, Washington director of Human
Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "The Bush administration's response to the dissidents' arrest has been completely inadequate. For the sake of its own credibility, it needs to speak clearly and publicly now."

HRW said that in March 2004, Saudi authorities arrested 13 people in several cities for circulating a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, and signaling their intent to form an independent human rights organization. The government released 10 of them after compelling them to sign an agreement that they would cease their public petitioning.

Three of the men -- Matruk al-Falih, Ali al-Domaini, and Abdullah al-Hamid --
refused to sign the agreement, and remain in prison facing charges of "issuing statements" and "using Western terminology" in calling for reform, the organization said.

It added: “Their lead lawyer, 'Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, one of the 10 released in March, has been detained since early November for statements he made to the press about the case.”

"President Bush should raise the cases of these dissidents by name when he
meets with Crown Prince Abdullah," Stork said. "He needs to point out that
vague proclamations of reform will be judged by what happens to people who
peacefully petition their government for change."

HRW also called on the president to raise the issue of “severe discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia. While there have been some positive developments, such as the recent denunciation of forced marriages by the country’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Shaikh `Abd al-`Aziz bin Al Shaikh, these statements need to be followed up with action. We urge you to ask the Crown Prince what legal measures the government plans to stop this practice.”

HRW said that official promises that women would be allowed to vote when municipal elections are held again were not reassuring, and asked President Bush to urge the Saudi leader to take "concrete, feasible steps towards ending gender discrimination" by appointing women to unelected seats on the municipal councils as well as to the national level Consultative (Shura) Council, which is wholly appointed.

“The exclusion of women as voters and candidates in the recent nationwide municipal elections for ‘logistical’ reasons raises doubts about whether the government is serious about granting women decision-making power in public life. Official remarks that women would be allowed to participate when such elections occur again are hardly reassuring, given the government’s past failure to fulfill various promises of reform.”

“If the government wishes to demonstrate good faith in this area, it should appoint a representative number of women to the unelected seats of these municipal councils, and to the national-level Consultative (Shura) Council.”

Islamists won in the municipal elections in the capital, Riyadh, and in the main eastern city of Dammam in earlier stages of the municipal elections that began in February. Conservatives were also poised to win most of the seats in Jeddah, the nation’s commercial capital. Abdul Rahman Yamani, one of the projected winners from a field of around 500 hopefuls there, said, “We are a religious people by nature, and secular people are not accepted (by society).”

HRW also urged Bush to address “the recent proliferation of judicial executions of Saudi Arabian citizens and, in greater numbers, non-Saudi residents of the country.”

It noted that Saudi Arabia “had publicly beheaded at least 40 persons since the beginning of the year, two-thirds of them from south and Southeast Asia. A number of those executed had been convicted of robbery and drug-related offenses.”

The letter asked President Bush, “in light of the absence of basic due process protections in the Saudi judicial system, to urge the Crown Prince to declare a moratorium on all judicial executions.”

Noting that “Saudi Arabia has taken some political reform initiatives, such as the partial elections to municipal councils held over the past few months”, the organization said, “improvements in human rights, where they have occurred at all, have been halting and inadequate.”

“Government proclamations regarding adherence to human rights principles have not led to changes in practices or to public access to information about violations of human rights,” HRW said.

The group urged the president “to make clear, in a public manner as well as in private talks, that the US expects to see concrete improvements in those areas that the Saudi authorities can address directly and immediately. The credibility of your administration’s emphasis on the need for political reform in the region rests in part on your readiness to address the Saudi Arabian government openly on some core issues.”

HRW said that the March 2004 arrests of dissidents occurred during then-Secretary of State Powell’s visit to the kingdom, “timing that may have been intended to signal opposition to U.S. calls for reform.” The administration’s response “has, in our view, been inadequate: Secretary Powell mildly criticized the arrest of the thirteen in public at the time, but neither the State Department nor the White House have since mentioned the continued imprisonment of these four individuals on completely specious charges.”

HRW aid it hoped that Bush “will make clear that you consider the treatment of these individuals to be emblematic of Saudi Arabia’s response to its human rights crisis, and that their continued incarceration and prosecution makes improvements in US-Saudi relations extremely difficult.”

The HRW letter was signed by Joe Stork, Washington Director for the Middle East and North Africa Division, and Tom Malinowski, the organization’s Washington Advocacy Director.