July 24, 2005

Saudi court upholds reformers’ jail terms

By Dominic Evans

RIYADH (Reuters) - A Saudi court has upheld jail terms of
six to nine years for three prominent campaigners who called
for political reforms in the absolute monarchy, their lawyer
said on Sunday.

Ali Ghothami said he was told by a Riyadh judge that the
court had rejected appeals by the three men -- two university
lecturers and a poet -- against the sentences passed in May.

The case of Matruk al-Faleh, Abdullah al-Hamed and Ali
Dumaini, who had petitioned for Saudi Arabia to move toward a
constitutional monarchy, has highlighted the limits of the
conservative kingdom's modest reform program.

Saudi Arabia held partial, men-only local elections earlier
this year. But supporters of the three reformists say their
treatment shows the royal family will not tolerate any
questioning of its power.

"These sentences are unfair and have no legal basis," said
a statement issued in the name of reformers calling themselves
"supporters of the constitution and civil society." It urged
Saudi Arabia's rulers to intervene and free the men.

The three men were arrested in March 2004, along with nine
others who were later released. In their protracted trial two
of the three refused to defend themselves in protest at the
hearings taking place behind closed doors.

Their arrest and sentencing drew rare public criticism from
the United States which has pushed for reform in ally Saudi
Arabia since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 which were carried
out by mainly Saudi hijackers.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the men as
"brave citizens" demanding accountable government in the
world's biggest oil exporter. On a tour of the Middle East,
which included Saudi Arabia, last month she said their actions
"should not be a crime in any country."

Saudi Arabia said the case was a matter for the courts and
that it would not accept changes imposed from outside.

During sentencing in May judges said the men's call for
reform had incited people at a critical time in Saudi Arabia's
history when "its enemies are lurking and looking for excuses
to intervene in the name of reform."

In their appeal, the men said the case against them was
riddled with judicial violations, including disagreement over
which courts could try them and a lack of impartiality by the
panel of three judges which sentenced them.

Judges allowed prosecutors to introduce evidence which was
not related to the initial charges, according to the appeal.
After one public court session in August last year, the
remaining sessions were held behind closed doors.