- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — A Saudi judge has postponed for the third time the trial of three prominent reformists whose crime involves a public call for a constitutional monarchy and an independent judiciary.

Ali Al-Demaini, Matruk Al-Faleh and Abdullah Al-Hamed were arrested on March 10, along with eight other reformists, who were released after promising not to sign any more petitions or talk to the press.

The first setback for the would-be reformers came on Sept. 27, when three judges ruled that the trial would be closed to the public.

The government later agreed to open the trial, but it has been postponed twice, including on Monday, when supporters and relatives of the three accused were denied entrance.

“It’s an indication that the reform plan is not going well with everybody,” said a senior Saudi government official who asked for anonymity.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers turned out to be Saudis, reformists in the kingdom began to openly question the values that were being taught to young Saudis in school.

The inward look at Saudi values and absolute monarchy provided an opportunity for reformists to press ahead with their demands to make the government more accountable and transparent.

A year later, several petitions were circulated both on the Internet and from hand to hand, and it is estimated that hundreds of Saudis signed the petitions.

A group of 15 petitioners met with de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah. It was reported that he received the petition favorably.

Then came a series of domestic terrorist attacks, led by local al Qaeda groups trying to topple the government.

The attacks strengthened the position of hard-liners in the Saudi royal family, and a crackdown on reformers followed.

“We are definitely going backward in terms of reform,” said Khaled Al-Dakheel, a professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh.

“At first I thought putting the reformists on trial would be the first step in releasing them, but now I’m not sure,” Mr. Al-Dakheel said.

Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, attorney of the three reformists on trial, says they are being treated well in jail, and that they have regular access to their attorneys and to their families.

But he said they were not arrested with the proper warrant and eventually will be found not guilty.

“They are charged with organizing, writing and signing petitions, but hundreds of Saudis have also done that. A guilty verdict would be an indictment not just of my clients but of all reformists,” Mr. Al-Lahem said.

“There is no contradiction between Shariah (Islamic law) and a constitutional monarchy. Shariah is of course above a constitution, but we need a written constitution to protect people’s rights and decrease the unlimited powers of political institutions,” he said.

A senior U.S. diplomat told The Washington Times that the U.S. government continues to gently nudge the Saudi government behind the scenes to continue with the reforms on which it already has embarked.

The reforms include nationwide municipal elections that will be held early next year and creation of the National Human Rights Association, which was formed in March.

“There was never meant to be a violent confrontation between the two sides,” the American official said on the condition of anonymity.

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