Saudis jail academics who petitioned for reforms

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The Independent Online

Saudi authorities have dealt a crippling blow to hopes of reform in the absolute monarchy by jailing three academics for up to nine years for petitioning the royal family to make good on promises of political reform.

Saudi authorities have dealt a crippling blow to hopes of reform in the absolute monarchy by jailing three academics for up to nine years for petitioning the royal family to make good on promises of political reform.

On the day the decision was announced, following a nine-month trial behind closed doors, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah met the US President George Bush in Crawford, Texas, where the leaders restated the "warm relations" between the two countries. Asked whether the issue of internal reform was raised, the Crown Prince replied that it was not. The Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the meeting had "renewed relations with greater warmth".

While Washington has trumpeted progress on democratic reform in Lebanon, Iraq and Ukraine as a by-product of its own foreign policy, the Bush administration has remained largely silent on the abuse of political freedoms by allies such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

The Saudi court sentenced Ali al-Dumaini to nine years in jail, Abdullah al-Hamed to seven years and Matruk al-Faleh to six years. All three were arrested in March 2004 after petitioning the kingdom's rulers to move toward a constitutional monarchy.

Relatives of the three men were shocked by the harshness of the sentences. "This is not fair," said Mr Faleh's wife Jamila al-Ukla. She said her husband supported "the centrality of the royal family, the country and Islam".

"To call for constitutional monarchy is not a criminal issue," she added.

In passing sentence the judges cited Mr Faleh's criticism of Saudi Arabia's education system, which the academic blamed for two years of violence by al-Qa'ida supporters. The court was told that Mr Dumaini had "incited [people] against the Wahhabi school" of Islam in Saudi Arabia, which critics blame for fostering Islamic extremism and anti-Western militancy.

Crown Prince Abdullah initially welcomed their ideas, including an elected council, freedom of expression and a greater role for women. But when the reformists continued to press for progress towards a constitutional monarchy, the rulers lost patience.

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