The Saudi authorities have drafted new anti-terrorism legislation that makes political dissent a criminal offence and would enable the government to jail anyone who questioned the integrity of the King or Crown Prince for a minimum of 10 years.
A draft copy smuggled from the kingdom and obtained by Amnesty International shows that the definition of "terrorist crimes" under the proposed new law is so broad as to enable the authorities to detain anybody for as long as they want on such wide-ranging charges as "endangering... national unity" or "harming the reputation of the state or its position".
The Draconian draft legislation is a sign of the deep sense of threat felt by King Abdullah and the Saudi royal family because of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movement, the emergence of a Shia Iraq in the aftermath of the US invasion, and the collapse of the status quo across the Arab world.
Wherever the ageing Saudi rulers look, old friends are disappearing or are under pressure, and new rivals of uncertain strength are emerging.
The Saudis are known to have been particularly shocked by the fall of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the failure of the US to support him.
Yemen, in the south of the Arabian peninsula, teeters on the edge of civil war, and a Saudi-led military force has helped crush the mainly Shia pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.
The Saudi authorities were particularly worried that the open protests of the Shia majority in Bahrain would spread to the Shia population in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.
In addition, they have always been suspicious, to the point of paranoia, of an Iranian-orchestrated Shia conspiracy to overthrow the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf.
Amnesty International obtained copies of of the Draft Penal Law for Terrorism for Terrorism Crimes and Financing of Terrorism, which is still to be passed, and is currently being examined by a Saudi government security committee.
"This draft law poses a serious threat to freedom of expression in the kingdom in the name of preventing terrorism," says Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa deputy director Philip Luther.
"If passed it would pave the way for even the smallest acts of peaceful dissent to be branded terrorism."
Detainees' rights – which have never been substantial in Saudi – would be effectively abolished. Suspects can be held for 120 days or longer if a special court so decides.
The proposed law also gives the authorities the power to arbitrarily detain somebody for up to a year or longer, and there is no right of appeal or access to a lawyer. Torture is not outlawed. The death penalty is to be applied to anybody taking up arms against the state.
Saudi officials have confirmed that the draft is authentic, but are quoted as saying that it may still be amended.
To a degree the law will institutionalise existing practice under which some 5,000 "terror" suspects are being tried or have already been sentenced. A further 33 people have been beheaded in the kingdom this year.
Though the draft law is nominally directed against "terrorism", the Saudi authorities have proved largely successful in crushing or driving abroad al-Qa'ida.
Its surviving leaders are mostly in Yemen as part of the Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula organisation which has about 300 members according to Yemeni officials. The precise letter of Saudi law is unlikely to impress them.
The ferocity of the crackdown by the Saudi-backed al-Khalifa royal family in Bahrain after demonstrations in February and March is an indication of the seriousness with which Saudi Arabia fears them spreading to the kingdom.
The draft law is evidently a pre-emptive strike against any future demand for change.
Five killed in Syria as protesters flood the streets
*Firing bullets and tear gas, Syrian security forces killed at least five people yesterday as hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters defied a massive security crackdown and flooded the streets of Damascus and other cities.
Protesters held banners that read "Enough Killing!" and accused the Syrian regime of trying to terrify people into submission by stirring up sectarian strife. In the past week, a wave of sectarian bloodshed in the central city of Homs has killed dozens, activists say. "They are trying to turn the conflict into a sectarian one, and we insist that it is not," a protester said from the central city of Hama.
The uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has grown over more than four months. Last Friday hundreds of thousands took to the streets. Syrian security forces responded by killing 32 people, activists said. AP
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