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.