- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — In a move that surprised many, King Abdullah yesterday pardoned three Saudi reformists and their attorney who had been serving jail terms for calling for a constitutional monarchy, a reformed judiciary and more democracy.

The king also pardoned several Libyans held in an assassination plot against him in 2003 and Islamist Saeed bin Zueir, who was serving a five-year sentence for justifying violent acts in the kingdom.

In an official statement read on state television, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz was quoted as saying: “King Abdullah … has issued an order to pardon and release the detainees.” The reformists who were pardoned were Abdullah al-Hamed, Matruk al-Faleh and Ali al-Demaini.

“I can’t tell you my feeling right now; it’s incredible,” said Ammer Al-Faleh, son of Matruk Al-Faleh, in a phone interview from Riyadh.

“We knew that it was coming, but we were not 100 percent sure until we heard it officially announced on TV at 9:30 p.m. tonight,” he said.

The reformists had been sentenced May 15 to jail terms ranging from six to nine years for sowing dissent and disobeying the ruler.

Their attorney, Abdulrahman al-Lahem, who was arrested in December, had not been sentenced by a court but had been held in jail since then.

Many Saudis said King Abdullah had lived up to his reputation of being a staunch supporter of reforms and of being close to the people.

“The release of the three reformists was the right thing to do,” said Riyadh-based political analyst Adel Al-Toraifi. “It will show those released that there is a new environment of change.”

But lawyer Bassem Alim, who had been informally providing legal advice to the reformists, was not so happy with the terms of release.

“I’m happy to hear the news, though the word ‘pardon’ connotes that they were guilty. And I don’t think they were guilty,” Mr. Alim said. “The end result was good, but the process was not correct. He could have ordered a retrial of their case.”

The sentencing of the three had been met with rare public criticism of Saudi Arabia by Washington, which has pushed for democratic reform in the Middle East.

It was the first amnesty by King Abdullah, who came to power last week after King Fahd died.

The Saudi Press Agency, which announced the pardons for the Libyans, did not say how many were included.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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