Saudi Activists Face Long Fight for Human Rights
Hiel, Betsy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
DAMMAM, Saudi Arabia -- In this oil-rich desert kingdom where public beheading, flogging and stoning remain punishments, Ibrahim Al-Mugaiteeb has his work cut out.
He's been imprisoned and barred from travel for condemning human rights abuses. Yet the president of the independent Human Rights First Society won't be quiet.
"My youngest grandchild is 3 years old," he says. "She deserves to live in a better Saudi Arabia.
"They can throw me in jail, they can shoot me, but I cannot stop my activity. There are no human rights here."
Slight openings in this closed society have encouraged some Saudis. The news media are freer to report on official corruption and human rights abuses -- although journalists are careful not to criticize the royal family. King Abdullah has spoken openly of reform. The country held its first municipal elections in 2005.
Yet, when a group of reformers recently called for political and social change, including a constitutional monarchy, they were arrested.
"The Saudi people live a double life," says Najeeb Al-Khonaizi, a prominent Shia writer and activist. "Why? It's schizophrenia."
He refers to the strict Islamic rule imposed in the kingdom versus the hedonism of many Saudis when they travel to Cairo, Beirut, Bahrain or the West, and blames "a general atmosphere that is unhealthy."
Al-Khonaizi is one of an estimated 1,000 activists -- men and women, Sunnis and Shia -- who have petitioned the king for reforms. "I signed the petition because it is what our country needs. Our struggle ... is peaceful, not underground."
Such words got him jailed in the 1980s and in 2004. He spent six months in a 3-by-6-foot cell the first time.
"The last time, I had a room," he says.
Today he, too, is forbidden to travel abroad.
He supports gradual, not radical, reform. But unless life starts to improve, he says, "the country will explode."
'It is not that easy'
Two years ago, the government created a human rights commission reporting to the prime minister.
"Since we are at the beginning, we are expecting a lot of difficulties," says Dr. Zaid Al-Husain, a commissioner. "It is not that easy to go with a new enlightenment like this."
Commission chairman Turki Al-Sudairy insists human rights are a universal value, not exclusive to the West.
Al-Husain agrees: "There are clear and direct verses in the Koran that emphasize the dignity of man, the equality of people."
The commission is seeking authority to publicly criticize other government agencies, according to Al-Sudairy. It met with the head of the country's powerful religious police, he says, and fewer abuses have been reported as a result.
Yet he acknowledges the pace of change isn't swift.
"In 24 hours, you can't change women's condition in Saudi Arabia," Al-Sudairy says. "Saudi Arabia is only 75 years old. ... It was just tribes scattered all around the country, fighting amongst themselves."
'Three basic rights'
In 2006, the Saudi government allowed Human Rights Watch into the country. The group promptly criticized the travel bans on intellectuals.
"If Saudi Arabia wants to improve its image abroad, it should allow its leading intellectuals to travel abroad and share their visions of the country's future," says Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East director.
"The Saudi royal family should ask itself how long it wants to continue banning, firing and arresting its critics, and at what cost. …