Saudi reformists jailed
The sentencing of 16 reformists in Riyadh to stiff jail terms has raised doubts about the fairness of the Saudi judicial system, reports Rashid Abul-Samh
"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 that ranged from 10 to 30 years in prison, after being found guilty of forming a secret organisation, attempting to seize power, inciting discontent against the king, financing terrorism and money laundering.
Saud Al-Mokhtar, a medical doctor from Jeddah, received the stiffest sentence of 30 years in jail, together with a 30-year travel ban and fine of SR2 million (around $533,112) for allegedly being the head of the group.
"He was the most visible of them in the media, but there was never a group. It was a complete fabrication," Alim said in a phone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly from Jeddah.
Of the other defendants, Suleiman Al-Rashudi, a retired judge, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, Moussa Al-Qurni to 20 years, Walid Al-Amri to 25 years, Abdel-Rahman Sadiq to 20 years and Abdel-Aziz Al-Khariji to 22 years, according to Alim.
The group came under the scrutiny of the security services after Al-Mokhtar had held a series of meetings over several months at his home in Jeddah. The meetings were open to the public, and politics and current events, including the war in Iraq, were discussed.
Al-Mokhtar also raised charitable donations to send to orphaned children in Iraq and other Arab countries.
The first nine members of the group were arrested in Jeddah in February 2007 after they met to discuss setting up a human rights organisation and circulated a petition calling for political reform, according to the international 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 the defendants before the trial.
The 16 were accused of planning to start a political party, which is illegal in Saudi Arabia. According to Alim, "there were no plans to set up a political party. There were plans to petition the king to set up a human rights organisation to educate the public about civil rights."
Alim said that a smaller sub-group of the 16 men had met with Saudi crown prince and interior minister Naif ibn Abdel-Aziz months before the arrests began, and that he had warned them to stop their organising.
Some observers have speculated that Abdel-Aziz's warning may explain why the men were treated so harshly in detention and handed such stiff sentences.
"Saud Al-Mokhtar held a diwaniya [meeting] in his home every week, and up to 200 people would attend at a single sitting," Alim said. "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 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."
However, Nawaf Obaid, a security consultant to the Saudi government, insisted at the time that the Saudi government had intelligence indicating that money collected by Al-Mokhtar had been diverted from needy Iraqis in order to buy weapons for Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"You have to prove that the money was diverted, and that he [Al-Mokhtar] knew it was being diverted," Alim commented, adding that in his view the government did not have the 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, and no witnesses to prove their accusations," he said.
Although those sentenced last week are of Islamist persuasion, Alim insists that Al-Mokhtar did not support Al-Qaeda or its ideology.
"Al-Mokhtar has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. All of his writings are against the takfeer way of Al-Qaeda and are intended to warn people of the danger of Al-Qaeda and its ways," Alim said.
"It is surreal and ridiculous. They have fabricated these accusations and have not even come close to making them sound realistic," Alim added. "There is no gun, and no smoking gun. This was an abuse of the justice system. The judge came to the case with a predetermined sentence in mind."
The defendants have 30 days to appeal once the judge has handed down the written sentence, expected in another week. Alim said he remained hopeful and that he would continue the fight.
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 king Abdullah is not responding to our appeals for clemency," Alim said.