Dissident with reputation as 'royal pain in the neck'

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The Independent Online
STEVE CRAWSHAW

Mohammed al-Masari, a 49-year-old former professor of physics at King Saud University in Riyadh, is not everybody's favourite politician.

But yesterday, many analysts of the region were shocked at his expulsion. One specialist on Saudi Arabia spoke of "a very clever, very pragmatic man". Another talked of "a shameful day for Britain".

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, was scathing in his assessment of Mr Masari in an interview with Al-Hayat last year: "From what I know of Mr Masari's views, he sounds like someone who carries no weight at all in the United Kingdom or in Saudi Arabia. The views that he has expressed appear to me to be very bad for the people of Saudi Arabia ... He represents a small group that, so far as we can tell, speaks for no-one and represents no-one."

But he also noted, during a visit to Saudi Arabia in November: "We take actions against people on the basis of their deeds, not their opinions ... If people have opinions, we may disapprove of them of dislike them intensely, but our society is such that that is something which is tolerated." No longer, it seems.

In the words of one analyst, "Masari's a nuisance, a pain in the neck. He's not inoffensive. But his attitudes are much more nuanced than the British Government seeks to suggest."

Mr Masari runs a human rights organisation, the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR). The CDLR's main call is for "the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners", and "freedom of speech and assembly and the right to choose accountable leaders".

But the British Government suspect another, more hidden agenda. Mr Masari, married with two children, describes himself as " a revolutionary since the 1960s". He told The Independent last year: "Look, the Iranian movement took only 30 years. It can be done in one generation: the seeds sown, and the harvest brought in."

Amnesty International appears to take a more generous view of Mr Masari than the British Government.

Amnesty was sharply critical of Saudi harassment of the CDLR, when the committee was first formed in Saudi Arabia in 1993, with the proclaimed aims of "alleviating injustice" and "the defence of human rights decided by Sharia [Islamic] law".

Between May and September of that year, more than 20 people, mostly university academics, were arrested and detained. Amnesty labelled them prisoners of conscience, a category only applicable to those who have not advocated violence. Mr Masari was among those held and allegedly tortured.

The CDLR transferred its operations to London in April 1994. Mr Masari sought political asylum in the UK, which the British were reluctant to grant from the start.

In March last year, a judgment by the Immigration Appeals Tribunal overturned the Government's attempt to send Mr Masari back to Yemen, which the British Government had declared to be a safe third country. The tribunal disagreed.

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