RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — In a stunning setback for reformists in Saudi Arabia, a Riyadh court yesterday sentenced three detained Saudi reformists to jail terms ranging from six to nine years for sowing dissent and disobeying the ruler.
Three judges at the court, which was ringed by security forces, issued their verdict after a nine-month trial, which was conducted almost entirely behind closed doors.
The court sentenced Ali Al-Dumaini to nine years in jail, Abdullah Al-Hamed to seven years in jail, and Matruk Al-Faleh to six years in jail.
The academics have been imprisoned for more than a year after being arrested in March 2004 for calling for a constitutional monarchy, an independent judiciary and freedom of speech. The prosecutors had accused them of using Western terminology in calling for their reforms.
“I’m in shock,” said Jamila Al-Ukala, the wife of Mr. Al-Faleh, as she spoke with supporters and reporters yesterday outside the courthouse.
“They didn’t commit a crime. From the beginning, there was no evidence against them,” said Ameer Al-Faleh, the 23-year-old son of Mr. Al-Faleh. “The whole case is just about thoughts that were just ink on paper.”
Attorney Ali Gothaimi said the three would appeal the decision within a month.
Mr. Al-Dumaini reportedly received the harshest sentence because of his criticism of the Saudi educational system, which he said was responsible for producing terrorists.
He is also the only one who presented a defense during the trial. The other two reformists refused to defend themselves as long as the court hearings were closed to the public.
Mr. Gothaimi said the panel of judges found that the men had overstepped the bounds by speaking to the foreign press, supposedly with the intent to incite people against the government The men also were accused of challenging the independence of the judiciary.
Mrs. Al-Ukala denied these charges, saying her husband had supported the central role of the royal family, the country and Islam.
Many supporters of the men told The Washington Times that they feared this was the beginning of a crackdown against reformists and said they were afraid of speaking out for reforms.
“This verdict is a reflection of how bad our courts are,” said Mohammed Alanezi, a supporter of the reformists. “They are centuries behind. We are now going downhill.”
President Bush called for reforms in Saudi Arabia in his State of the Union speech this year, but many Saudis say privately that they are not counting too much on U.S. support because of the nation’s strategic importance as an oil exporter.
“The Saudi regime is determined to stifle reasonable and peaceful voices for reform in the country,” said Ali Alyami, the Washington-based director of the opposition Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. “Surely, it is time for the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress to stop regarding the Saudi royal family as sacrosanct and start holding them accountable for their violations of human rights.”