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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 June, 2005, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Saudis dismiss Rice's criticism
Crown Prince Abdullah greets Condoleezza Rice in Saudi Arabia
The US has been challenging close Middle Eastern allies
Saudi Arabia has played down an appeal by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for democratic reform and the release of three political prisoners.

Ms Rice made the call before arriving in Riyadh to meet de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Abdullah and the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Prince Saud said afterwards that a country's own people were best placed to determine how it should reform.

The dissidents, he added, were in the hands of the court, not the government.

Ms Rice, in a speech in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on Monday, went further than any other senior US official in pushing for democratic reform in the Middle East.

"Throughout the Middle East the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty," she said.

"It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."

'Brave citizens'

As well as criticising Egypt's political record, she also spoke of "three individuals... imprisoned for peacefully petitioning their government".

She was referring to three activists in Saudi Arabia - Ali al-Demaini, Abdullah al-Hamed and Matruk al-Faleh - sentenced to between six and nine years in prison in May on charges of demanding a constitutional monarchy.

"That should not be a crime in any country," she said, speaking in praise of "brave citizens" who demanded "accountable government" in Saudi Arabia.

Her speech came before she headed on to Riyadh for the fourth, and final leg, of her Middle East tour.

She was treated to a tea ceremony with Prince Saud at Riyadh airbase, before meeting Crown Prince Abdullah at the Crown Prince's Palace.

Speaking at a news conference after midnight, Prince Saud said: "The row is really meaningless."

"The assessment that is important for any country in the development of its political reform is the judgment of its own people".

As for the dissidents, he added: "The government cannot interfere until the court action is taken in this regard."

Lawyers for the three activists are expected to appeal against the sentences on Tuesday.

See excerpts from Condoleeza Rice's Cairo speech

Rice calls for Mid-East democracy
20 Jun 05 |  Middle East
Reformists jailed by Saudi court
15 May 05 |  Middle East
Egypt's president 'cannot exclude us'
09 Jun 05 |  Middle East
Rice demands Palestinian reform
18 Jun 05 |  Middle East
Rice trip signals US peace hopes
18 Jun 05 |  Middle East

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