No Arab Spring for Bahrain
Torture and death lurk behind the return of Bahrain’s glitzy Formula 1 race, writes Rasheed Abul-Samh
THE government of Bahrain was sure that hosting the Formula 1 race again last Sunday, after it was cancelled last year because of the violent clashes between mostly Shia protesters and police, would surely be a sign that things were improving and that the nation was finally healing.
But the island-state went into a virtual lockdown to produce an event that was devoid of many spectators, while violent clashes occurred in the villages surrounding the capital Manama, with many injured and at least one death.
The now 14-month long civil war between the majority-Shia, who want more rights and a constitutional monarchy, and the Al-Khalifa ruling family, who are Sunni, had dropped off the radars of most international media, who had been much more attracted by the other revolts of the Arab Spring such as the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the ongoing fighting in Syria. Now, the media attention returned, if only for one weekend and for all the wrong reasons.
The hunger strike of Abdel-Hadi Al-Khawaja, a prominent 50-year-old human rights activist, who has not had any solid food for more than two months, came to symbolise the desperation that so many of Bahrain’s Shia feel towards a government that despite cosmetic attempts at reform, has obstinately refused to share power, release hundreds of political prisoners, or reinstate those sacked from their jobs after taking part in anti- government protests that started on 14 February 2011.
A Bahrain court heard appeals on Monday from defence lawyers for Al-Khawaja and seven other Shia activists, who were all sentenced to life in prison last year following their involvement in the protests, and want to have their sentences overturned. Unfortunately, the court adjourned to 30 April, leaving Al-Khawaja’s family deeply worried that he may not survive until then. One of his daughters, Mariam, told the Danish TV2 channel that doctors predict he has only two or three more days to live.
“Al-Khawaja’s fate will have considerable impact on what happens in Bahrain, at least in the short run,” said Toby Jones, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, and who has been closely following developments in Bahrain. “A move to have him retried in a civilian court would be a positive development, but I suspect most Bahrainis would see such a move as too little, too late. And given his grave condition, there are serious concerns that he may not live long enough to see a new trial through. His death will unleash a new round of protests and based on past regime responses, will lead to more anti-protester violence.”
King Hamad bin Eissa Al-Khalifa formed an international investigation panel last year, led by Sherif Bassiouni, which was tasked into looking at the abuses committed when thousands of Bahraini protesters were arrested, jailed and tortured. The result was an impressive report that documented many abuses and recommended several reforms. The king has taken none, and as Mariam Al-Khawaja told a meeting of activists in Cairo this month, not a single high-ranking official was fired or punished for the abuses.
A main reason for the reluctance of the Al-Khalifas to implement any significant reforms is the fact that its rich benefactor neighbor, Saudi Arabia, has taken a hardline against the protesters, insisting that they are being instigated by Iran in order to create a Shia-ruled nation on its doorstep. The United States, which has its 5th Navy Fleet based in Bahrain, looked the other way in March of last year when Saudi troops rolled across the causeway into Bahrain, under the guise of being part of a Gulf Cooperation Council force that King Hamad had asked to come in. But Bahraini Shia have gone to great lengths to remain independent of Iran, and no credible evidence of any Iranian involvement in the unrest has been presented.
“There is no evidence of Iranian involvement. Their insistence is meant to justify their crackdown,” explained Jones. “The Saudis would view the loss of Bahrain as a vassal state as a strategic calamity. Even without Iranian involvement, it would result in a significant dent in Saudi hegemony in the Gulf.”
Jones also believes that the Saudis want to maintain the US military presence in Bahrain as a deterrent to what it sees as the Iranian threat.
“While the Saudis don’t want the Americans on their territory, they do want a US military presence nearby. Bahrain’s opposition have not said they would kick the 5th Fleet out of Manama, but Saudi Arabia certainly worries that that could be one result of a successful revolution there,” said Jones. “The Saudis also know that the American geopolitical priority in the Gulf is to contain Iran. By repeatedly insisting that Iran is behind the Bahraini uprising, Riyadh seeks to appeal to American anxieties. Even though the claims of Iranian meddling are wholly manufactured, they seem to be working. We have neither heard criticism nor seen constructive engagement by the US in Bahrain.”
Bahrainis remain deeply split between those who want to keep the royal family as is, those who want it reformed and made more democratic, and those who want them gone completely.
“Some Bahrainis are saying: ‘We do not want the Al-Khalifa regime,’ and others are saying, mostly the political societies, that we need a constitutional monarchy first. So there is a difference in opinion,” Zainab Al-Khawaja, another daughter of Abdel-Hadi, said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly late last year.
“If you ask me personally, I want to see all the top members of the royal family on trial. I don’t want a constitutional monarchy where the same people who are responsible for killing our children, for torturing our fathers, for beating our sisters, remain on their thrones and live peacefully and happily ever after. It’s not the way that this is supposed to happen,” she said.
Yet with the government not releasing political prisoners and unwilling to even talk about sharing power, the situation in Bahrain seems to be grim and is already slipping into more violence, with protesters using more Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs against security forces, much like their counterparts in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province.
“Bahrain is on edge. The regime clearly thinks it has a winning strategy. But it has in fact sown the seeds of permanent conflict and resistance. The regime has sealed Manama off from the worst of the violence, but in order to sustain that it is forced to carry out a permanent wave of oppression and brutality in the country’s villages,” concluded Jones.
Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1095/re1.htm
The struggle of Saudi women
This is a translation of my April 20, 2012, O Globo column:
The winds of change were blowing in Saudi Arabia long before the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and I’m seeing this mostly in the streets and shops of Jeddah. Last year a handful of women at the wheel of cars drove through the streets of several cities of this conservative and sexist kingdom. They filmed themselves doing it, and posted the resulting videos on YouTube for the world to see, but mostly so that other Saudi women could see that, yes, women can drive a car, and the world did not end.
I went to the house of one of these women in Jeddah. Najla Hariri, 48, mother of three children, had lived for 25 years outside Saudi Arabia. She told me she got two driver’s licenses — the first in Beirut, Lebanon, and the other in Cairo, Egypt. Back in the kingdom now for two and a half years, she repeatedly found herself forced to take to the wheel to get a child to school, or to buy food and medicines. “We have a driver, but sometimes he or my husband were busy with other things, and I found myself needing to drive my car to do my chores,” said Hariri.
She estimates that she drove at least 20 times last year, and that all who saw her behind the wheel gave signs of support, smiling, honking and giving her the thumbs up. But Saudi police, unaccustomed to seeing women driving, were annoyed: “I was stopped three times by police. The first two times, they released me, and they even said that they supported what I was doing and that they wanted their wives and sisters to drive in the future.”
“But the third time,” Hariri told, “My car was surrounded by three police cars, and the sergeant insisted that I go to the police station with them.” Her husband was called to the police station and she was released. A month and a half later, both were summoned by a public prosecutor and pressured into signing affidavits that they would not repeat the alleged infringement. “I signed because I did not want to trouble my family,” she said. There is no law that forbids Saudi women from driving. Nor is there any passage in the Holy Qur’an about it. “This ban on women driving is based on Saudi traditions and nothing more,” she said.
Unable to drive for now, Hariri is now focusing her efforts together with a group of women around the country — linked by Twitter and Facebook — on the issue of male guardianship which every woman in the kingdom is submitted to. “For me this is the key issue for our independence and freedom as women,” said Maha Akeel, a journalist and writer. “To do anything from opening a bank account, traveling abroad, to undergoing certain types of medical operations or even work, a Saudi woman needs the written approval of her male guardian,” Akeel said.
In practical terms, this means that a woman must have her father’s permission to marry, work and travel, among other things. When married, she needs the permission of her husband to do all these things. If widowed or never married, and her father has passed away, the woman becomes the hostage of a brother or an uncle.
While Saudi women face the challenges of living in an ultra-sexist society that infantilizes them, universities have produced a steady stream of female graduates, but with little hope of employment. This has generated an enormous social pressure to find jobs for these women, and the government is finally responding to the situation, letting them work in shops as saleswomen.
Just recently, I was approached by a saleswoman in a Jeddah perfume store offering to show me the latest in men’s fragrances. Just two years ago this would never have happened because only men were allowed to work in sales, even in lingerie stores for women. But a Saudi woman, outraged at having to give her intimate measurements to male store clerks, started a campaign on the Internet a few years ago to only allow women to work in lingerie shops. The government responded and a royal decree banning men from working in lingerie shops was enforced this year. A spillover effect has been felt in perfume shops that cater to both men and women. Now, even in supermarkets most cashiers are Saudi women, usually covered from head to foot in black abayas, with only an opening for their eyes.
These are positive signs for Saudi society, but much remains to be done. If Saudis remain steadfast, the country will be on a path of justice and freedom for all, regardless of gender.
Who will investigate the use of Brazilian tear gas in Bahrain?
This is a translation from Portuguese of my column that appeared in the March 9, 2012 edition of O Globo:
The Brazilian foreign ministry Itamaraty and Condor Non-Lethal Technologies must find us naive. After my report on the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain (O Globo, 9/1), the Folha de S. Paulo reported (11/1) that the foreign ministry would investigate whether there was breach of contract in the use of gas in Bahrain.
I was waiting for a report from the so-called investigation. Then came an article entitled “Brazil, Producer and Exporter of Arms”, published by the Brazilian investigative site A Publica, on Jan. 27, which said the following: “Itamaraty itself acknowledges that it has no power of investigation: after the scandal of Bahrain, the office of the Itamaraty spokesman said that the ministry was only ‘watching with interest’ as the story unfolds…. ‘It is a contract between private parties. It may even involve a foreign government, but responsibility for its product lies with its manufacturer,’ said the foreign ministry.”
I sent six questions to Itamaraty on the use of Brazilian tear gas in Bahrain, my main question being: “It seems that the Brazilian government is washing its hands of any responsibility for the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas in Bahrain. Why? Does Brazil not think it is important to safeguard the human rights of civilians in a civil war situation, or are Brazilian economic interests more important than human rights? ”
I also asked if Brazil had sent a diplomat to Bahrain to investigate. This was the non-response I received: “This office states that the jurisdiction of the ministry and other public administration bodies on the matter in question is clearly defined by the National Policy on the Export of Military Equipment.”
This policy, known by the acronym PNEMEM in Portuguese, is not very demanding. A Brazilian exporter needs to submit just three things: 1. An import permit from the importing country; 2. An End User Certificate 3. In the case of countries in which the import of these materials is unregulated, a statement from the Brazilian diplomatic mission in importing country or from the importing country’s diplomatic mission in Brazil, is needed.
I called Condor in Rio de Janeiro and talked to their marketing manager, Massilon Miranda, who repeated the statement made in December that his company had never sold tear gas to Bahrain, but may have sold the gas to neighboring countries. Perhaps one of the armed forces of one of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which were deployed in Bahrain last year to help the Bahraini royal family quell the demonstrations, had used the gas made in Brazil? Perhaps, but the way things are going, I do not think we will ever know for sure. Certainly not if we depend on Itamaraty or Condor for confirmation.
It is striking that Condor has the inability to admit that its tear gas could have been used in Bahrain. “There was never any confirmation that any person has died a victim of tear gas — even more so Brazilian gas — in Bahrain,” said Miranda. “Maybe activists are doing this campaign [against gas] to limit the means that police have to use against them. Is all that smoke actually from tear gas?”
The photo of a used canister of tear gas manufactured by it, emblazoned with the Brazilian flag, released by activists in Bahrain; the two deaths caused by Brazilian gas as reported by Zainab al-Khawaja, and miles of video showing security forces in Bahrain throwing thousands of canisters of tear gas against protesters, are not enough to convince the spokesperson of the Condor that it became involved in a civil war, whether it likes it or not?
The Brazilian government has a policy to help the export of arms manufactured in the country, and President Dilma Rousseff signed a provisional order in September exempting Brazilian manufacturers of armaments from taxes. Brazil has a long history of exporting heavy and light weapons to areas of conflict areas since the 1970s. The country sold many weapons to the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when Iraq was at war with Iran for eight years.
Not surprisingly, Itamaraty is in the difficult position of wanting to help Brazilian exports of weapons, but at the same time must feel a certain discomfort in seeing Brazilian-made tear gas, supposedly non-lethal, being used against children, women and old people. There is a responsibility on the part of Itamaraty and Condor to investigate, ascertain and possibly even suspend arms sales to Arab countries, since the end use of the exported tear gas was not in the country of the government that bought the gas from Brazil. It’s the least we can do to rescue the reputation of Brazil as a country that cares about human rights — not only of Brazilians, but also of other people with a thirst for more freedom and dignity.
The limits of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia
This is a translation of my column that appeared in the Feb. 24, 2012 edition of O Globo:
The young Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari could not have dreamed that his comments posted on Twitter on the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, on February 4, would have such shrill and dangerous consequences for him.
“I have loved things in you, and hated others,” wrote Hamza, 23, on Twitter, in an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad, who died over a thousand years ago. “If I saw you, I would not kiss you, but extend my hand to you as any other friend, and would smile at you. But I will not pray for you.”
As the founder of Islam, more than 1,400 years ago in Mecca, all Muslims revere Muhammad as an almost sacred person, that can never be criticized or have his teachings put into doubt. So it’s not so difficult to understand the fury of the reaction that exploded on Twitter and Facebook. More than 30,000 tweets about Hamza’s comments flew through cyberspace, mostly attacking the young former columnist for the daily Al-Bilad, with many calling him an apostate, which can lead to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
A group formed on Facebook, with over 8,000 members, asking for his death. Stunned by the backlash of believers across the Islamic world, Hamza removed his comments and then deleted his Twitter account altogether. He fled the country on February 9, but a few days later he was arrested in Malaysia when he tried to board a flight to New Zealand, where he planned to seek political asylum. The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz, had ordered his arrest and the kingdom had allegedly activated Interpol to detain the young wherever he was in the world. Soon after, he was sent back to the kingdom, where he remains in detention awaiting trial.
Studious, Hamza grew up in a family of great faith, and memorized the entire Holy Qur’an, not an easy achievement. But, with his inquisitive mind, he began to devour books and, according to his mother, habitually locked himself in his room to read books and did not talk much with his family.
Days after he was arrested, she called a local religious TV program and pleaded for her son, crying while insisting that her son was a good boy, and that he had repented having made those comments. But that was not enough for Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, a religious leader and scholar, who cried in a lecture, that was filmed and later posted on YouTube, over the words that Hamza had dared to say about Prophet Muhammad.
“His repentance was said with cold words,” Sheikh Nasser said. “He’s being disingenuous, he should be executed. We must not engage in debates with atheists. But instead, we should warm up our swords to fight them.” He ended by repeating that Hamza should be tried by a Shariah court for apostasy and sentenced to death despite having repented.
But do not think that all of Saudi Arabia is in the Middle Ages. Thousands of Saudis shocked by the outpouring of intolerance against Hamza urged calm, good judgment and tolerance of a young man whose only sin was exposing the doubts of his faith on the Internet. Even Princess Basmah bin Saud al-Saud, a daughter of the late King Saud, wrote an open letter to King Abdullah and Crown Prince Naif, asking them to give a royal pardon to the young Hamza.
It is perhaps ironic that in a country where there is no freedom of expression, we find the largest number of Twitter users per capita in the Middle East, and where the billionaire Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal recently bought $300 million in shares of Twitter, which will give him a 6% stake in the company. But this is the other side of a society that few outside the region see: A predominately young and educated population, with 100,000 Saudis currently studying in the US on scholarships from the Saudi government. Religious, yes, but most moderate and wanting things that all young people want: Jobs, a less corrupt government and a voice in their future endeavors.
It is interesting to see how the Internet is being used by many young Saudis to express themselves and to hold leaders accountable for their actions. Twitter has an anonymous account that regularly denounces various excesses of princes, ranging from those who earn huge commissions on government contracts, or those who have huge palaces. And it is revealing that some of the princes have even responded to the accusations, defending themselves on Twitter, something that would never happen in traditional media that is tightly controlled by the government. On YouTube, several rookie filmmakers are gaining thousands of followers with their mini-series, of 15-minute episodes, which they post regularly, dealing with a wide variety of topics ranging from urban poverty to young love.
I do not think Hamza will be executed. He is being used as a scapegoat by the ultraconservatives in the country who do not like modernity. If the government can have him be tried by the Ministry of Information, he will likely just be fined and banned from writing for a few years. If tried in a Shariah court, he might be condemned to death. But then the king will intervene and forgive the young man. What I do know for sure is that the Internet, despite being heavily censored by the government, has changed forever the relationship between the Saudi people and their leaders, and is a channel of expression and communication that the government can never close.
To end the bloodshed in Syria
This is a translation from the Portuguese of my column that appeared in O Globo newspaper of Rio de Janeiro on 10/02/2012
The relentless violence that has spread in Syria since March of last year, with demonstrators calling for more freedom being violently suppressed by government forces, in recent days has reached unacceptable levels in the city of Homs. Hundreds of men, women and children are being brutally murdered by gangs of pro-government militias, or victims of the relentless bombing of the air force that dropped more than 200 bombs on the city Monday in only four hours.
After the veto of Russia and China at the UN Security Council in New York on Sunday of a resolution condemning the Syrian government for the violence in the country and demanding the beginning of a dialogue with the opposition, supporters of the defeated resolution were reduced to cursing the two Eastern powers. The US closed its embassy in Damascus, and Britain and France, among others, called back their ambassadors for consultations. The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, withdrew their envoys in Syria and expelled all Syrian diplomats from their territories.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the violent and sadistic streak of his father, the bloody Hafez, constantly gives speeches accusing the protesters of being foreign spies, mobilized to ruin the country. In his mind it is all a plot to end his reign as ruthless dictator. Indeed, Syria became a police state in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad came to power in a military coup. All his opponents were killed, imprisoned and tortured, or pushed into exile abroad. A network of informants across the country instilled a fear of criticizing any government measure or leader in public. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the massacre of Hama, which occurred in February 1982, when Hafez ordered the army to end an Islamist revolt in that city. The whole city was demolished by a brutal bombing that killed up to 40,000 people.
Unfortunately, leftists in the West were left starry-eyed when Bashar (and his wife Asma) inherited the leadership of Syria after Hafez’s death in 2000. They were seduced by the two young professionals, good-looking, charming, educated in London modern and secular in outlook. Many had hopes that Bashar was going to change things in the country, opening the economy and allowing a space for political opposition. And he did liberalize the economy, allowing neighboring Turkey to invest in many areas, a radical change from the past when the economy was centralized and state-controlled, a legacy from the era when the Soviet Union was the great ally of Syria. The problem here is that most contracts went to his Alawite allies, followers of the same obscure offshoot of Shiism, of which Bashar is a member.
For a long time Syria was considered the leader of Arab nationalism, especially because of its hatred for Israel, to which it lost the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War. But with the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the region, Syria was not immune to the revolutionary wave, and here we are almost a year after the first clashes between protesters and supporters of Bashar, with 6,000 dead in Syria and the country in a brutal civil war. The dilemma we face is this: Must we invade Syria to end the cowardly massacre of innocent civilians in Homs, or do we have to pursue diplomacy? I think it’s more than clear that the time has come to use force against Bashar, because talking with him has led to nothing, and has given him the opportunity to kill more of his countrymen.
In a very interesting article published in The National of Abu Dhabi, on February 5, an Emirati military analyst, Ahmed Al Attar, and William J. Maloney, argued that a force composed of troops of the GCC countries, Jordan and Turkey could invade Syria from the south and north to establish liberated zones where forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and refugees from cities under government attack such as Homs and Hama, could seek refuge. NATO (of which Turkey is a member) and the US would help with their air power to destroy the air defense systems of the Syrian government, and maintain a no-fly zone over the entire country.
It is clear that the invaders would have to enter Syria with clear and public defensive goals to only protect civilians and create a safe space for the opposition to negotiate the exit from power of Bashar and ensure the transition to a democratic future with honest and open elections open to all parties.
The American academic Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is the former director of planning at the US State Department, believes that following the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”, which was used in 1999 when NATO bombed the former Yugoslavia to end the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo, an invasion of Syria to protect civilians being brutally killed there, could be supported by the UN.
It is true that there is little stomach now in the US and Britain for an air campaign over Syria like what was done in Libya. But it is precisely here that rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar can provide the money to finance such a military campaign in Syria, and use its latest generation fighter planes bought from the West. Syria forms an axis of Shia allies starting in Iran, going through Iraq and Syria, and ending with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Taking Bashar out of power would weaken this Shiite alliance, which threatens the political and economic interests of the GCC and the West.
Syria and the world would be much better places without the “monster” of Bashar al-Assad. We cannot allow his forces to continue to kill thousands of innocent Syrians, who are clamoring for more freedom, and keep our arms crossed waiting for diplomacy to save them. The time to act is now.
Brazil to investigate use of tear gas in Bahrain
THE Brazilian Foreign Ministry, Itamaraty, announced on Tuesday (10/01/2012) that it was going to investigate the lethal use of Brazilian-made tear gas against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain, following the publication of my story in O Globo newspaper on Monday in which I quote Bahraini activist Zainab al-Khawaja saying that Brazilian-made tear gas was responsible for the deaths of at least two children.
The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper carried the news this morning in its print edition and online. Click here to read the story in Portuguese.
Here is my quick translation of their story into English:
Brazilian foreign ministry investigates the use of tear gas in Bahrain
The Brazilian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it is examining whether there was a breach of contract in the use of tear gas made by a Brazilian company, Condor Non-Lethal Technologies, against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain.
Re-exports of arms without the authorization of the seller country is prohibited, and Condor has not sold tear gas to the monarchy of the Persian Gulf, according to the company and the foreign ministry.
The most likely hypothesis, however, is that the gas was used by one of the other five monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to support the King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
Condor, a maker of “non-lethal” weapons and ammunition based in Rio and that earns 30% of its earnings in exports, has confirmed that countries in the region are clients, but does not reveal which ones.
The use of the tear gas was denounced by activists from Bahrain and reported in the newspaper “O Globo” by journalist and blogger Rasheed Abou-Alsamh.
Activists attribute the death of a baby to a substance of the gas, whose main chemical agent is chlorobenzylidene malononitrilo.
Condor said it received the news of the baby’s death with “disbelief”, stating that its tear gas is also used in Brazil and in 40 other countries and that it follows “international safety standards.”
This case calls attention to the lack of transparency in arms exports, when it is Brazil’s official policy to encourage the domestic arms industry.
In September, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed an interim measure to exempt such manufacturers from taxes, which the defense ministry says is aimed to put them on equal footing with foreign competitors.
At the time, Dilma said that one of its goals was to increase exports.
These sales must be authorized by the foreign ministry and the Directorate of Controlled Products Inspection, linked to the command of the Brazilian Army.
Asked if there is no political obstacle to the sale of weapons of crowd control to dictatorships, the Foreign Ministry said an analysis is made on a case-by-case basis.
Government and companies claim confidentiality agreements in not disclosing details of sales, and say this is international practice.
Legislation to be submitted to Congress by the defense ministry would provide for the setting-up of a public database on acquisitions and sales of weapons.
Numbers available today in the Ministry of Development show that exports of arms and ammunition, excluding dual-use items like jeeps and helicopters, grew 320% between 2000 and 2011, from $69.7 million to $293 million.
Brazil sold $19.5 million worth of weapons between 2006 and 2011 to five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwaitis), according to this data.
In the ranking of leading global weapons exporters, according to the International Institute for Peace Studies in Stockholm, Brazil was in 14th position in 2010. The list is headed by far by the US and Russia.
Saudi reformists sentenced to long jail terms, lawyer calls trial a travesty
Published in the Dec. 1-Dec. 7 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly:
Sentencing of 16 reformists in Riyadh to stiff jail terms raises doubts about fairness of the Saudi judicial system, reports Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
“Horrible, uncalled for and unfounded,” were the words used by Bassim Alim, the lawyer of the 16 reformists sentenced on 22 November to stiff jail sentences in Riyadh ranging from 10-30 years in prison, after being found guilty of forming a secret organization, attempting to seize power, incitement against the King, financing terrorism, and money laundering.
Dr. Saud al-Mokhtar, a medical doctor from Jeddah, received the stiffest sentence of 30 years in jail, a 30-year travel ban and a fine of SR2 million (around $533,112), for allegedly being the head of the group.
“He was the most visible of them all in the media, but there was never a group, it was a complete fabrication,” said Alim in a phone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly from Jeddah.
Suleiman al-Rashudi, a retired judge was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, Musa al-Qurni to 20 years, Walid al-Amri to 25 years, Abdulrahman Sadiq to 20 years and Abdulaziz al-Khariji to 22 years, according to Alim.
The group came under the scrutiny of the security services after Dr. Mokhtar held a series of weekly meetings over several months at his home in Jeddah, open to the public, in which politics and current events, such as the war in Iraq, were discussed. The doctor also regularly raised charitable donations to send to orphaned children in Iraq and other Arab countries.
The first nine of the group were arrested in Jeddah in February 2007 after they met to discuss setting up a human rights organization, and had circulated a petition calling for political reform, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. All 16 were held for more than three years without being charged or tried until August 2010. Alim was not allowed to meet with any of them before the trial.
The 16 reformists were accused of planning to start a political party, something that is illegal in the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Alim denies this: “There was no plan to set up a political party. There were plans to petition the king to set up a human rights organization to educate the public about civic rights.”
Alim admits though that a smaller sub-group of the 16 reformists had met with the hardline Crown Prince and Interior Minister Naif ibn Abdulaziz months before the arrests began, and that he had warned them to stop their organizing. Some observers speculate that this may be why they were treated so harshly in detention and handed such stiff sentences.
“Dr. Saud al-Mokhtar held a diwaniya in his home every week, and up to 200 people would attend in a single sitting,” explained Alim. “Dignitaries from the Islamic world would attend, as well as former ministers, philosophers, writers, journalists and government officials. His campaign to raise money for Iraqis was broadcast on Saudi TV, and the account number for donations was publicly known,” he added.
US Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in 2007 that “based on the evidence I have seen, it appears more likely that these men were actually democracy activists.”
At the time though, Nawaf Obaid, a security consultant to the Saudi government, insisted that the government had intelligence saying that the money collected by Dr. Mokhtar had been diverted from needy Iraqis in order to buy weapons for Al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq.
“You must prove that the money was diverted, and that he (Dr. Mokhtar) knew it was being diverted,” said Alim, adding that the government did not have much evidence. “At the beginning I was given access to the list of indictments. They only had (records of) meetings with different people, and they tried to extrapolate from there. They had no phone recordings, no documents, no witnesses to prove their accusations,” he explained.
Although those sentenced last week are of an Islamist persuasion, Alim insists that Dr. Mokhtar never supported Al-Qaeda or its ideology.
“Dr. Saud has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. All of his writings were always against the Taqfeer way of Al-Qaeda, and to warn people of the danger of Al-Qaeda and their ways,” said Alim.
“It is surreal and so ridiculous. They fabricated these accusations and could not even come close to making them sound realistic,” added Alim. “There is no gun, and no smoke coming out of the gun. This was a crucifixion of the justice system. The judge came with a predetermined sentence in mind.”
The defendants have 30 days to appeal once the judge gives his written sentence, which is expected in another week. Alim says he is hopeful and will fight to the very last moment.
Asked whether he would appeal to King Abdullah for clemency, Alim said that many people had already sent appeals to the king, but that there had been no response so far.
“I feel that that King Abdullah is not responding to our appeals for clemency,” said Alim.