- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — A court has ordered jail terms and lashings for 15 persons convicted of participating in an anti-government demonstration, dealing a setback to the nation’s modest reform movement.

The demonstrators, including at least one woman, were handed sentences on Monday ranging from one to six months in jail and ordered to receive between 100 and 200 lashes.

Lashings are generally administered with a thin reed by a man who must hold a book under his arm to prevent him from lifting the arm too high. The strokes, delivered through a thin shirt, are not supposed to leave permanent damage, but do leave painful welts that bleed and then bruise.

The state prosecutor voiced disappointment with the sentences, saying they are “too lenient” and that the government would appeal for tougher punishment.

In Washington, where President Bush has made the spread of democracy in the Middle East a central element of U.S. foreign policy, officials reacted cautiously to the sentences.

“We support the development of democracy and free expression of views in Saudi Arabia, and anything incompatible with that is not helpful,” said a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The demonstrators took part in what the government has branded an “illegal” anti-government protest called by Saudi dissident Saad al-Fagih in Jidda on Dec. 16.

The protesters had been peacefully promoting democratic reforms and the nonviolent ouster of the ruling Al-Saud family. Police chased them through the streets of Jidda’s old city for three hours, firing at them with rubber bullets.

In all, 21 persons were arrested, two of them residents of unidentified foreign countries, according to a report yesterday in the local daily Okaz. The remaining six are expected to face sentencing soon.

According to the Saudi newspaper, some of the demonstrators pleaded not guilty, saying they had not known it was illegal to take part in public demonstrations. Others asserted they were innocent bystanders who had simply been watching the protest.

“These sentences are very harsh,” said Bassem Alim, a Saudi lawyer in Jidda. “If the sentencing was based on the simple act of voicing one’s opinion, then the sentences were dramatically wrong and shouldn’t have been handed down.”

A Saudi legal analyst in Riyadh, who requested anonymity, told The Washington Times that he, too, was appalled by the legal ruling.

“There have been sporadic demonstrations in the kingdom over the last few decades, but none where the participants were jailed for six months,” he said.

No official from the government-backed Saudi Human Rights Association was available to comment last night.

Public demonstrations in the conservative kingdom have been banned since 1953 following a large-scale industrial strike and demonstrations at the now state-run Aramco oil company in the Eastern Province.

Although most Saudis still find the concept of public demonstrations alien — especially after some Muslim scholars declared it would cause “fitna” or sedition if Muslims protested against their Muslim rulers — others say Islam guarantees the right to do so.

“These harsh sentences go against our framework of freedom of speech and opinion in Islam,” said Mr. Alim. “We Muslims have freedom of speech and opinion within the parameter of our Islamic constitution as long as we don’t commit heresy against God or the prophet Muhammad. Muslims should be allowed to voice their opinions.”

The Saudi government, promising limited reforms, has scheduled municipal elections beginning in February for the first time in 40 years. But critics of the government cite the imprisonment of three leading reformists and the crackdown on the Jidda demonstrators as evidence that the government is not wholly committed to reform.

The Bush administration has been encouraging democratic reforms in the kingdom after years of U.S. support for the royal family.

In an absolute monarchy where no one was allowed to publicly criticize the government until a few years ago, the U.S. government has been quietly supporting Saudi reformists, while taking care not to embarrass the government.

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