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Saudi activists face long fight for human rights

| Sunday, May 27, 2007

DAMMAM, Saudi Arabia -- In this oil-rich desert kingdom where public beheading, flogging and stoning remain punishments, Ibrahim Al-Mugaiteeb has his work cut out.

He's been imprisoned and barred from travel for condemning human rights abuses. Yet the president of the independent Human Rights First Society won't be quiet.

"My youngest grandchild is 3 years old," he says. "She deserves to live in a better Saudi Arabia.

"They can throw me in jail, they can shoot me, but I cannot stop my activity. There are no human rights here."

Slight openings in this closed society have encouraged some Saudis. The news media are freer to report on official corruption and human rights abuses -- although journalists are careful not to criticize the royal family. King Abdullah has spoken openly of reform. The country held its first municipal elections in 2005.

Yet, when a group of reformers recently called for political and social change, including a constitutional monarchy, they were arrested.

"The Saudi people live a double life," says Najeeb Al-Khonaizi, a prominent Shia writer and activist. "Why• It's schizophrenia."

He refers to the strict Islamic rule imposed in the kingdom versus the hedonism of many Saudis when they travel to Cairo, Beirut, Bahrain or the West, and blames "a general atmosphere that is unhealthy."

Al-Khonaizi is one of an estimated 1,000 activists -- men and women, Sunnis and Shia -- who have petitioned the king for reforms. "I signed the petition because it is what our country needs. Our struggle ... is peaceful, not underground."

Such words got him jailed in the 1980s and in 2004. He spent six months in a 3-by-6-foot cell the first time.

"The last time, I had a room," he says.

Today he, too, is forbidden to travel abroad.

He supports gradual, not radical, reform. But unless life starts to improve, he says, "the country will explode."

'It is not that easy'

Two years ago, the government created a human rights commission reporting to the prime minister.

"Since we are at the beginning, we are expecting a lot of difficulties," says Dr. Zaid Al-Husain, a commissioner. "It is not that easy to go with a new enlightenment like this."

Commission chairman Turki Al-Sudairy insists human rights are a universal value, not exclusive to the West.

Al-Husain agrees: "There are clear and direct verses in the Koran that emphasize the dignity of man, the equality of people."

The commission is seeking authority to publicly criticize other government agencies, according to Al-Sudairy. It met with the head of the country's powerful religious police, he says, and fewer abuses have been reported as a result.

Yet he acknowledges the pace of change isn't swift.

"In 24 hours, you can't change women's condition in Saudi Arabia," Al-Sudairy says. "Saudi Arabia is only 75 years old. ... It was just tribes scattered all around the country, fighting amongst themselves."

'Three basic rights'

In 2006, the Saudi government allowed Human Rights Watch into the country. The group promptly criticized the travel bans on intellectuals.

"If Saudi Arabia wants to improve its image abroad, it should allow its leading intellectuals to travel abroad and share their visions of the country's future," says Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East director.

"The Saudi royal family should ask itself how long it wants to continue banning, firing and arresting its critics, and at what cost."

For now, the restrictions remain.

In Hofuf, a desert oasis in an oil-rich section, Sadek Al-Ramadan promotes change on a television program, "Human Rights, Your Rights." But the show is broadcast only in neighboring Kuwait because there is "no opportunity to 'go live' in Saudi Arabia," says Al-Ramadan, chief executive of an agricultural company.

The government also halted his local public lectures on human rights, he says.

With his human rights organization still unlicensed by the government, Al-Mugaiteeb struggles to raise money. His demands are not outrageous, he says, nor anti-Islamic.

"Apply the rule of law, give us freedom of association and freedom of expression," he says. "These are three basic rights."

Instead, the political and religious establishments are "not allowing people to breathe."

Reformers or 'terrorists'?

Since the Sept. 11 attacks -- in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi -- the kingdom has come under unprecedented scrutiny.

"The Saudis cannot hide anymore," says Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a women's activist.

In early 2003, a series of bombings and other attacks forced the government to take terrorism seriously. Today, billboards declare that "Terrorism is an alien phenomenon to our society" and "Terrorism is the path of misguided infidelity."

Even so, nine reformers arrested last month were accused of supporting terrorism. Their last petition called on the Saudi government to create an independent judiciary, to hold free legislative elections, and to protect human rights and public liberties.

They also "called upon the king to curtail the overwhelming power of the Ministry of Interior, which totally dominates every aspect of life," Dr. Matrook Al Faleh, a political science professor, said in a statement.

"The dominating general rule here in Saudi Arabia could be as follows: You can eat, and you can see and hear, but don't speak up, don't criticize, don't write or sign collective petitions ... (and) don't travel."

Waiting for U.S. support

Al-Khonaizi, the Shia writer, thinks the "biggest reasons for spreading extremist thinking" in the kingdom are "restrictions on democracy and freedom."

He recalls a 2005 speech in Cairo by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said the United States for more than 50 years "pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region ... and we achieved neither." Rice said U.S. policy now is to support the "democratic aspirations of all people."

Like many Arab reformers, he feels the United States still withholds support for democracy advocates, in order to persuade regional regimes to back U.S. policy in Iraq and to build a bulwark against Iran.

Al-Ramadan, the agriculture CEO, says the United States should influence the Saudi government to change.

"The Americans have put pressures on so many countries -- why not Saudi Arabia?" he says. "Put pressure for economic reform ... (and) it will help the human rights side."

Human rights activist Al-Mugaiteeb acknowledges that Saudi Arabia's powerful Islamic establishment will oppose any change. It fought against the telephone, education for girls, satellite television -- "they were against everything in the beginning."

The government can overcome that, he says, as it always has. But he adds that "the regime and the political establishment are not stronger than the social code," and Saudis themselves must change. "Saudi civil society needs to grow up."

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