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Saudi democracy activist Matrouk al-Faleh arrested

THE Saudi democracy activist Matrouk al-Faleh was arrested at King Saud University in Riyadh on Monday by secret police, according to this report by Human Rights Watch.

He was one of the three activists arrested in 2004, along with Ali al-Domaini and Abdullah al-Hamed, after calling for a constitutional monarchy and an elected parliament. They were put on trial and sentenced in 2005 to varying jail terms. All three were released in late 2005 only after King Abdullah pardoned them.

I covered the announcement of their conviction in Riyadh in 2005 for the Washington Times, standing outside the courthouse in the sun with their family members. I remember that none of us were allowed to enter the building and armed guards kept pushing us back until we ended up on a side street.

I subsequently met and interviewed Faleh in Riyadh in 2007 for a story I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor. Here is part of my story:

But the arrest of nine Saudi reformists on Feb. 10, 2007, dashed the last hopes of many who were hoping for more substantial reforms. And many see the government move to regulate salons as another sign the kingdom is backing away from allowing more political openness.
The arrests took place after the nine had signed a petition addressed to King Abdullah calling for political reform and the splitting up of the Ministry of Interior. If this were implemented, it would seriously weaken the powers of the interior minister, Prince Naif ibn Abdul Aziz, who is known to be strongly opposed to the reform movement.
“A group of us met with Prince Naif in January 2004 before we were imprisoned, and he strongly objected to the use of the term ‘reform,’ ” recalls Matrouk al-Faleh, one of the three jailed reformists pardoned by King Abdullah in late 2005.
Faleh says that he believes one of the reasons that the nine reformers were arrested was that some of them were about to announce the formation of a political party, something the government has warned repeatedly it would not allow. “These arrests are a coverup on the part of the Ministry of Interior to kill any activation of democratic reform demands,” he says.
The government has also accused some of the nine arrested reformists with sending money to “terrorists” in Iraq, a charge strongly denied by their lawyer Bassem Alim and the relatives of Saud Al-Mokhtar, one of the arrested reformists.
Despite all of these setbacks, reformists like Faleh and the female academic are still optimistic that things will gradually improve in five to 10 years from now.
“We hope that King Abdullah will continue reform. We have some problems with some of our senior leadership who are opposing change. We don’t believe that the Saudi public and the religious establishment are obstacles to reform,” says Faleh.
“We want an independent judiciary and a code of public liberties that guarantee freedom of expression, participation and formation of civil society groups,” he adds.

HRW believes that Faleh may have been arrested for his public criticism of jail conditions in Buraidah, where his fellow activists Abdullah al-Hamid and Isa al-Hamid are serving jail terms for expressing support of a demonstration held last year in front of a secret police prison by wives and relatives of long-term detainees held there without charge or trial.

I hope that Faleh will be released soon and allowed to return to his teaching job at the university.