Hundreds turn out for first Saudi human rights march

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Saudis marched down the main avenue of the capital, Riyadh, yesterday in an unprecedented demonstration timed to coincide with the opening of the kingdom's first human rights conference.

Hundreds of Saudis marched down the main avenue of the capital, Riyadh, yesterday in an unprecedented demonstration timed to coincide with the opening of the kingdom's first human rights conference.

As the conference got under way the US, German and British embassies warned expatriates that there was credible evidence of a planned terrorist attack against the capital's two main skyscrapers. Next to one of them, the Kingdom Tower, demonstrators chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) were dispersed by anti-riot police, who fired shots into the air two hours after the protest began. An unknown number were arrested and taken away.

Traffic in the centre of Riyadh was brought to a standstill and special security forces maintained a heavy presence.

The protest was organised by Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi dissident who heads the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform. He is calling for the ruling House of Saud to be overthrown. How much support he has in Saudi Arabia is not clear. Despite months of publicity for the protest through his radio station, only a few hundred Saudis, most of them aged under 30, turned out.

Reformist intellectuals in the kingdom, who have petitioned Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the de facto ruler, three times this year for greater reforms, have unconditionally distanced themselves from Mr al-Faqih.

Prince Naif, the Interior Minister, said on Monday: "These calls [for a demonstration] are worthless barking, and I think only the ignorant will respond to them. This is illegal, and we hope Saudi citizens will rise above it."

For the past week a huge banner emblazoned with the words "Human Rights" has been visible in the capital, but it was put up by the Saudi government, not the protesters. In a country where people are often reluctant even to mention the phrase "human rights" in public, the fact that Saudi Arabia is hosting the Human Rights in Peace and War Conference, organised by the Saudi Red Crescent, is highly significant.

While the Saud family is committed to cautious constitutional reforms, it knows it must address economic and social issues gradually, to avoid a backlash from any of the Islamic state's constituents.

Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, an Al-Riyadh journalist, echoed the official line. He said: "These young demonstrators broke the law. How can they call for reforms and break the laws of the land at the same time?"

The Gulf state has been criticised for sharia punishments under Islamic law, especially public beheadings. Shortly before the inaugural speeches were given on Monday, the official Saudi press agency announced that a drug smuggler had been beheaded in Jeddah.

The conference was officially opened on Monday, with speeches and debating sessions getting under way yesterday. Western human rights bodies were not present. Neil Durkin, of Amnesty International, said the organisation was disappointed not to have been invited. The conference could be just "window-dressing", he said. But the authorities appeared to be getting the message about the need to reform.

Saleh al-Tuwaijri, organiser of the conference, said: "There is a misunderstanding between Islamic and Western societies and we believe the reason is a lack of intellectual contact.

"The more we can provide such contact, the wider the understanding for Islamic sharia in the West."

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