Saudi reformists formally charged

Three Saudi reformists have been formally accused of calling for the kingdom to become a constitutional monarchy and questioning the independence of its judicial system.

    The reformists were accused of incitement and sowing dissent

    Ali al-Dimaini, Matruk al-Falih and Abd Allah al-Hamad "took up

    issuing statements and collected as many signatures as possible on

    petitions" calling for changes in the country,

    according to a prosecution statement at their trial opening

    on Monday.

    They were accused of "calling for adopting a constitutional

    monarchy and using Western terminology" in demanding political

    reforms.

    The trio, who have been detained for nearly five months, also

    allegedly have questioned a provision in the basic law which says the

    king heads the "judicial authority".

    Officials have accused the men of engaging in

    "incitement", sowing dissent, threatening national unity and having

    "some contacts with foreign sides".

    The three men, who sat on the front bench of a packed courtroom,

    requested two weeks to study the accusations before entering their

    pleas.

    Controversial petition

    But the judge, Muhammad ibn Khunain, banned three lawyers listed as

    members of the defence team from taking part in the trial "upon

    orders from the minister of justice". He did not elaborate.

    A legal source requesting anonymity said the three lawyers

    had signed one of the controversial petitions.

    "We want a constitutional
    monarchy like in other kingdoms ... . 

    Jordan is a good example"


    Matruk al-Falih,
    Saudi reformist on trial

    Defence lawyer Muhammad al-Sinaidi requested the three

    defendants be released on bail, but the judge turned down the

    request which he said should be made in writing.

    Al-Falih, a lecturer at King Saud University, said before the

    session he and the other defendants had not been officially

    informed of the hearing, but only heard through unofficial channels

    on Sunday they would have to appear in court.

    He said they had not been granted access to their lawyers until

    six weeks ago, but said their treatment in detention had been "OK".

    Al-Falih reiterated his call for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi

    Arabia.

    Reform activists

    "We want a constitutional monarchy like in other kingdoms ... .

    Jordan is a good example," he said.

    And the defendant downplayed a government decision to hold municipal

    elections later this year.

    "Municipal elections is a limited step ... . It will not lead to [

    establishing a body] questioning the government," he said.

    Saudi Crown Prince Abd Allah has
    pledged to reform cautiously

    "We want to be able to elect the consultative [shura] council,"

    he added.

    Al-Falih said the government could have instead announced a "reform

    package" including a date for elections for a legislative council.

    The three defendants were among about a dozen of activists

    arrested on 16 March, half of whom were released within a couple of

    days after pledging not to lobby for reform in public.

    Many of the activists who were detained were signatories to a

    petition demanding Saudi Arabia should become a constitutional monarchy.

    Al-Dimaini, however, did not sign this petition.

    Municipal elections

    The trial came on the same day that Saudi Arabia announced regulations

    for its first-ever municipal elections later this year

    .

    Regulations issued by the Municipal Affairs Ministry stated

    all citizens under the age of 21 and military personnel would

    be barred from voting in the landmark polls scheduled for November

    onwards.

    It is unclear if women will be able
    to vote in the municipal election

    A constitutional law expert said the wording of the

    regulations in effect left open the possibility that women could

    vote.

    "The basic law in Saudi Arabia uses the masculine form when

    referring to citizens in general," Abd Al-Aziz al-Awaishiq said.

    Saudi women rights' activists welcomed the new regulations as

    being free of any discrimination against women's right to cast their

    vote.

    "If decision makers wanted to exclude women, they would have

    stated that clearly in the text," Hitun al-Fasi, a lecturer at

    King Saud University, said.

    Women to vote?

    Journalist Nahid Batahish noted that the regulations underlined

    the important role of women in Saudi society and that they were

    "partners in the process of development".

    Earlier reports had said only men would take part in the

    process.

    "If decision makers wanted to exclude women, they would have

    stated that clearly in the text [of the election regulations]"

    Hitun al-Fasi,
    King Saud University

    The government has recently eased some restrictions on women -

    allowing them to start businesses under their own name rather than

    that of a male relative - although influential voices

    in the 

    kingdom have fiercely opposed the relaxation.

    The official SPA news agency said last Wednesday that the first nationwide polls in the

    kingdom to elect half the members of 178 municipal councils would be

    held in three stages from November into early 2005.

    The other members of the new municipal councils will be named by

    the government.

    The anticipated ballot is part of a drive to introduce limited

    reforms, which Riyadh insists must be tailored to Saudi

    specifications and not necessarily follow a Western pattern.

    Saudi leaders promised last October to organise elections within

    a year, but an armed campaign by anti-government rebels

    raised doubts whether the timetable would be maintained.

    SOURCE: AFP


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