Saudi dissidents freed on eve of election

A front-page story in the Feb. 10 NY Times notes that Saudi Arabia is holding its first national election that day–albeit with an "asterisk": women are barred from the vote, and even men only get to elect half the members of municipal councils. The other half will remain appointees, and no national leaders will be elected.

Nor did the Times note the high price dissidents have paid to bring about this extremely limited and tentative democratic opening. Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News reports that two reform advocates spent the two months leading up to the elections behind bars:

Eissa Al Hamed and Ahmed Al Qaffary, a lawyer, were arrested in December after arguing with police while trying to attend the trial of three pro-democracy advocates in Riyadh.

Human Rights First, a rights advocacy group based in eastern Saudi Arabia, welcomed the release of the two activists but said they deserved an apology and compensation for damages.

The organisation said the two were released on Monday [Feb. 7] and were originally detained without a trial.

Despite a statement from officials that legal proceedings would be open, judges barred people from the trial of the three activists that Al Hamed and Al Qaffary were trying to attend.

The three were arrested in March after openly criticising the strict religious environment and slow pace of reform in the kingdom.

Some of the reformers had signed a letter to Crown Prince Abdullah calling for political, economic and social reforms, including parliamentary elections.

Human Rights First also questioned whether the two men would be allowed to travel after their release. Saudi authorities frequently bar former political prisoners from travel.

Despite feeble efforts by Congress to limit it (and because of perceived insufficient anti-terrorist cooperation, not internal repression), this beacon of democracy will receive $19.4 billion in US aid in 2005. (Reuters, July 15, 2004)