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Monday, March 12, 2012
Lessons From The Saudi “Spring”
By Christoph Wilcke
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabaia
March 11, 2011, Saudi Arabian activists called for a "Day of Rage"
wishing to bring the rising tide of protest to the kingdom. Only one person
showed up. But underneath the quiet surface, some things have changed in Saudi
Arabia and dissent is brewing. One significant change is that activists can,
sometimes successfully, challenge arbitrary detention in administrative court.
The second change is that in order to avoid such challenges, the security
services now level formal charges against detained dissidents and bring them to
trial for their activism. In a country without written criminal law, forcing
the government to submit to judicial process gives dissident grievances a
official Saudi response to the attempted protests showed that the government
would not cede an inch of political space to popular calls for reform, choosing
instead in February and March 2011 to placate Saudi citizens by doling out an
estimated $135 billion in subsidies. The ruling Saud family, whose senior
members occupy not only the throne but also key ministries and all provincial
governorships, clamped down early on dissent. But for all government efforts to
project an air of normality and suppress protests, popular displays of
legal treatment of protesters reveals that the courts remain pliant to
political will despite King Abdullah's judicial reform project -- but
subjecting dissidents to a judicial process is a significant gain for the
latter who have a platform to defend their rights to peaceful expression,
assembly, and association.In February
2011, security forces arrested the first protesters, a group of people who
intended to establish the country's first political party, and other
intellectuals who advocated for political reform in a series of petitions
issued that month. In March, ahead of the "Day of Rage" that had been
announced on Facebook, the interior ministry and the Council of Senior
Religious Scholars, the highest religious body tasked with interpreting Islamic
law, issued a ban on all protests. Over the following months, more and more
protesters in the heavily Shiite Eastern Province who defied the ban landed in
jail. In March, and again in December, peaceful protesters in the Saudi
capital, Riyadh, and Qasim, a northern province, were also jailed. In May and
June, authorities arrested women who drove automobiles to protest the kingdom's
informal prohibition on women getting behind the wheel.
dissidents is not new in Saudi Arabia. In the past, Saudi Arabia's feared
secret police, the mabahith, have locked up thousands of suspected militants as
well as individual peaceful reform activists. In some cases, they pretty much
threw away the key. In others, the detainees have been released after the
authorities thought they had served sufficient time -- conditional on
repentance and a promise not to repeat the supposedly offensive activities.
There was no judicial process.
is new is that activists arrested in 2011 either for peaceful protest or
written expression of dissent now are formally charged and sometimes tried in
court. This is a small victory resulting from increased pressure from
protesters and activists, as well as judicial reforms begun by King Abdullah in
2007. Abdullah ordered specialization of Sharia courts dividing them into
criminal, civil, family, commercial, labor, and traffic courts, and added
appeals courts. He also ordered the codification of criminal law -- however
with no tangible progress to date -- and poured millions of Saudi Riyals into
increasing and training judicial officials.
arbitrary detention was the central demand of initial, small street protests in
the Eastern Province and in Riyadh in 2011, and had been a longstanding concern
of isolated activists. The former judge, and lawyer, Sulaiman al-Rashudi in
2006 and 2007 collected powers of attorney for detainees intending to sue the
mabahith before the Board of Grievances, an administrative court, over
arbitrary detentions -- until he was arrested in February 2007.
year, King Abdullah declared judicial reform, with new and more streamlined
courts and administration, a central pillar of his reforms. In 2009, the new
Specialized Criminal Court began trials for hundreds of long-term detainees
accused of militancy. In 2007, the mabahith could still arrest lawyers they
considered a threat, or ignore verdicts by the grievances court, but the
numbers and the organization of petitioners have grown. Since mid-February, the
Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA) has filed over
two-dozen petitions with the grievances court. In previous decisions, the court
has sided with the petitioners, for example, ordering the release last June of
Thamir al-Khadhr, a human rights activist and student detained since March 2010
through court cases and the king's judicial reforms have led the mabahith to
initiate a semblance of legal process. Most activists arrested in 2011 have
faced some formal charges and trials. This positive development has neither
prevented arrests, nor precluded convictions, but it has starkly set out the
judicial interpretation of relations between ruler and ruled, and defined what
is considered a crime in Saudi Arabia given the lack of a written criminal law.
are some acts that the court has suggested are criminal:
al-Bajadi, arrested in March 2011, is being tried for being a member of ACPRA,
a peaceful, but unlicensed, rights organization.
al-Aziz al-Wuhaibi, arrested in February 2011, was convicted in November and
sentenced to prison for trying to found a peaceful political party.
al-Rashud and others were convicted in January 2012 and sentenced to prison for
taking part in a peaceful protest in December 2011.
Al Majid, arrested in April 2011, is charged with providing information to an
bin Zuair, arrested in March 2011, was charged in December 2011 with
"disobeying religious scholars," and "encumbering the affairs of
the ruler" for petitioning the interior ministry to release his detained
Jastainah, a woman driver, was convicted in September for violating public
order and sentenced to public lashing.
cases are seminal in defining, in law, seemingly absolute powers of the ruler
and denying basic rights of assembly, association, and expression to citizens.
They underline that the courts remain pliant tools of government repression.
But the cases have also given fodder to what by 2012 has become a large number
of engaged citizens who use Twitter and other online expression to ridicule
these verdicts, protest new arrests and trials, and demand their international
human rights. The government has apparently taken note of this public opinion
and released Khadhr, Rashud, bin Zuair, and others.
House of Saud remains the absolute rulers, but the Saudi "Spring" has
left its mark. Saudi absolutism has become less arbitrary and more defined, and
thus open to challenge, in the courts and in public opinion. The government has
to publicly defend its actions, and increasingly, members of the public are
doubting its reasoning that portrays peaceful, often nationalistic and
religious-based reform activism as dangerous subversion.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 12/03/2012
-Christoph Wilcke is a senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who
has long tracked developments in Saudi Arabia