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Last Updated: Monday, 27 June, 2005, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
Saudi Stories: Constitutional Three

Bill Law
Reporter, Saudi Stories

In Saudi Arabia, openly calling for political reform is dangerous.

Even to speak with western journalists about reform may be enough to lead to jail.

SAUDI STORIES
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That hasn't stopped some people from speaking out.

In a closed courtroom on 15 May this year in Riyadh, three men, all intellectuals, were given lengthy jail sentences.

Their crime was to call for constitutional reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

They were accused of using Western terminology, of sowing dissent and disobeying the ruler.

They have become known as the Constitutional Three.

Missing husband

Fahzia is the wife of one of them.

Her husband Ali al-Domeini was sentenced to nine years in jail.

Abdullah al-Hamed received seven years and Matruk al-Faleh six years.

Saudi Arabia's effective ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah
The men believed Crown Prince Abdullah was on their side
Fahzia spoke to me in the eastern city of Dammam before the sentences were handed down.

Simply by talking to me she risked jail herself. But she was determined to speak.

"On 16 March 2004 my husband was late," she told me.

"I started getting worried. He was usually home by six in the evening but he didn't show up.

"I waited until nine and then I started calling hospitals, police stations. But nothing.

"And the next morning again I looked for him at the police stations and the answer was nothing so I went to the office of the Emir of Dammam. He wouldn't meet me. He said that he didn't meet with women."

Jailed

It took five days before the authorities told Fahzia that her husband was being held in a Riyadh jail.

I asked her if she was surprised at her husband's arrest. She said yes.

I am the wife of an imprisoned man - I have the right to scream
Fahzia al-Domeini
"Crown Prince Abdullah (the effective head of state) actually received them and when he met them he said 'Your project is my project' and I always remember this sentence when I remember what happened to my husband."

A month after the meeting with the crown prince, the mood had abruptly changed.

The interior minister, Prince Naif - who has a reputation for being a ruthless hardliner - had all of the men arrested.

They were given a blunt ultimatum: Recant and you walk free, otherwise you will remain in jail.

One of the activists who accepted the government's terms spoke to me anonymously.

Looking nervously over his shoulder in the crowded lobby of a Jeddah hotel, he said: "At first all of us refused. Then after 14 days we signed. Except for those three who refused and continue to be in jail."

Fearful families

The families of the other imprisoned men are fearful of talking - with good cause.

The other solution is violence, which we are against - violence will take us into a dark and dangerous tunnel
Saudi activist
Fahzia was the only one who dared to speak openly.

I asked her why.

"I am the wife of an imprisoned man. I have the right to scream. I didn't lie about anything. The good things I talked about, the bad things I talked about. I have the right to speak."

Those who were released were told not to write articles, speak to the media or discuss the political situation in the country with anyone.

Still, the anonymous activist was determined to spread the defiant message of the Constitutional Three.

"We have to put pressure on the government. This is the only solution.

"The other solution is violence, which we are against. Violence will take us into a dark and dangerous tunnel. All of us. Believe me, I am very afraid. If the royal family doesn't move toward reform who knows what will happen?"


Bill Law's series, Saudi Stories was first broadcast in June and July 2005 on Radio 4 and World Service.

The Saudi Stories programmes are available to listen online or to download in two installments as part of the BBC Podcasting trial.




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