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Saudi Reformers Silenced, Released

An Saudi man reads newspaper as Saudi policemen chat in background in Riyadh.
AP
Authorities have released seven of 13 detained reformists, activists said Sunday, easing a situation that sparked tension between Riyadh and Washington, reflects a Saudi fear of change and tests a new, state-sanctioned human rights group that considers the arrests legal.

The professors, lawyers and writers detained last week in several Saudi cities had been critical in newspaper articles and TV appearances of the kingdom's strict religious environment and the slow pace of introducing reform. Arresting them was seen as a message to more influential Saudis the government isn't softening on dissenters of any stripe.

Najib al-Khunaizi, a detainee freed Thursday, said the men had to make a written pledge not to sign petitions calling for reform or talk to the media. He insisted on Saudis' right to "freely express themselves" and said he had been treated well, but had signed the pledge under duress.

Some of the reformists signed a letter addressed to Crown Prince Abdullah at the end of last month calling for a speedy introduction of political, economic and social reform, including elections of the Consultative Council, which acts as a parliament and is appointed by the king.

Others demanded the absolute monarchy be changed into a constitutional monarchy and that Saudi Arabia review its relations with the United States. And some criticized the new, National Human Rights Association, whose members also are appointed by the king, and declared their right to establish an independent rights group.

"Those guys who were detained and the ideas they represent have made a lot of waves, sparking a lot of debate," said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, head of Human Rights First, which is active despite government refusal to respond to a request to license it that was submitted in November 2002. Mugaiteeb said seven of the detainees were released.

"The government was afraid the debate would not remain a debate in the papers," he added.

The government has accused the men of incitement and of using the names of prominent Saudis in petitions without asking those people's permission first.

In Kuwait on Sunday, women lost a small suffrage battle as a parliamentary panel rejected an amendment that would have given them the right to run and vote for the Municipal Council.

Kuwait's constitution grants equal rights to men and women. But after more than four decades of democracy, women are still out of the political scene because of a 1962 election law that allows only men aged over 21 who are not members of the police or military to vote, just 15 percent of the citizens.

In 1999, the emir, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, decreed women could vote and run for Parliament but the legislature overruled him.

Kuwaiti women serve as undersecretaries in key ministries such as oil and education. However, they cannot be appointed as Cabinet members, because ministers, like lawmakers, have to be men.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli condemned the Saudi detentions last week as "inconsistent with the kind of forward progress that reform-minded people are looking for."

Angered by what it saw as U.S. interference in an internal matter, the Saudi Foreign Ministry responded by issuing a statement saying it was "disappointed" by the U.S. reaction to the arrests.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed concern over the detentions during a meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh on Friday.

Despite their activities, the men do not carry the kind of importance, political weight or popular base that would have undermined the government. However, the arrests were seen as a message to other, more influential Saudis, whose detentions would have created a stir among the public — such as religious clerics who claim they have shed their extremist past and are pursuing a more moderate course.

If the government does not take steps to quiet reformists, it could be seen as softening in its control of dissenting views, and some clerics who have moderated their speech may choose to challenge authorities and return to a more extremist message. It would be more difficult to crack down on them without creating a stir among their followers.

Al-Khunaizi said he was smoking a water-pipe in the eastern, mostly Shiite city of al-Qatif on Tuesday when he was arrested.

He said the detainees were treated well, kept in intelligence officers' offices or in villas and not in prison cells. "There was no abuse or insults of any kind," he said in a telephone interview.

Some reports have suggested the men had been upset over their exclusion from the National Human Rights Association, which was formed about two weeks ago. But al-Mugaiteeb dismissed the reports as "garbage," saying the men have been pushing for reform since before the association's establishment.

"Plus, who would be honored to join a group like that appointed by the government?" said al-Mugaiteeb.

Many Saudi intellectuals and liberals have cast doubt on the association's ability to function as an independent body when many of its members hold government jobs, are former civil servants or close to the government. Its head, Abdullah al-Obeid, is a member of the Consultative Council.

The detentions were a test of the association's ability to function as a neutral body. Several of its members refused to comment on the detentions, telling The Associated Press it was too early to do so.

Al-Obeid remained silent on the issue for a few days. In remarks published Saturday, he told Okaz daily that his association will be "following up on this matter with the competent authorities."

Al-Obeid was quoted as saying the association does not know the reasons for the men's arrest, "but the official authorities ... are entitled to arrest anyone for questioning — this matter is legal."

"What we could investigate are the proceedings or the methods used for the arrest as well as the outcome and judgments resulting from the arrest or from the questioning," he added.

The Saudi government began a cautious move toward reform following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks carried out by 19 Arab hijackers, 15 of them Saudi. It has encouraged debate and allowed newspapers more freedom to criticize. However, despite improvements in a few areas, the country's record on human rights is poor, according to a recent U.S. State Department report.