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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 May 2005, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
Reformists jailed by Saudi court
Saudi children selling watermelons
The sentence casts doubts on Saudi Arabia's moderate reforms
A Saudi court has sentenced three reformists to jail terms of between six and nine years for "stirring up sedition and disobeying the ruler".

The three activists were arrested in March 2004 after urging the rulers to move towards a constitutional monarchy and speed up reforms.

They refused to defend themselves on the grounds that the trial was taking place behind closed doors.

Human rights representatives were also barred from the courtroom.

Using Western terminology, causing instability and collecting signatures for a petition reportedly were among the accusations levelled against them.

Poet Ali al-Demaini was handed down a nine-year term, Abdullah al-Hamed was sentenced to seven years and Matruk al-Faleh to six.

Relatives and reporters were denied access to the proceedings.

Other activists arrested in March last year were later released after promising to stop calling for reforms.

Step back?

Correspondents say the crackdown marked a setback in the country's tentative move to promote limited reforms, urged by the US in the wake of the 11 September attacks, which were carried out mainly by Saudi hijackers.

"The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future," US President George W Bush said in February.

The New-York based Human Rights Watch in April urged the president to raise the issue of the three activists during a meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Price Abdullah.

But it is not known whether the issue featured among the topics discussed at Mr Bush's Texas ranch.


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