Saudi police arrest protesters demanding more reform
( 2003-10-15 09:00) (Agencies)
Saudi police fired warning shots near an unprecedented rights conference on Tuesday to disperse protesters calling for more radical reforms than those planned by the authorities.
The rare demonstration, by about 100 people demanding faster reforms and the release of political prisoners, took place one day after the conservative Muslim kingdom announced its first ever elections, joining a regional trend toward cautious experiments with democracy.
The calling of elections for local councils next year, and Tuesday's rights conference, follow Western charges that the kingdom's poor human rights record had helped the rise of militant Islamist groups such as the al Qaeda network led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden.
Saudi reformists hailed the elections as a major step toward reform in a country ruled by an absolute monarchy, but some said more, and greater, changes were needed to meet the challenge posed by militant Islamists and the expectations of ordinary people.
Witnesses told Reuters police fired shots in the air and arrested about 50 people as the protesters, mostly under the age of 30 and wearing traditional Saudi flowing robes, marched through the capital chanting "God is greatest."
Disregarding a ban on public protests, the protesters, waving banners, demanded faster reforms and the release of political prisoners from Saudi jails.
The protest coincided with the country's first human rights conference, which organizer Saleh al-Tuwaijri told Reuters would discuss issues such as human rights under Islam, implementation of international rights conventions and the rights of refugees.
"There is a misunderstanding between Islamic and Western societies and we believe the reason is a lack of intellectual contact," he said.
"The West regrettably now looks at Islam and Arabs through certain groups of Muslims defaming Islam and we must show them the real picture of Islam," he added, referring to al Qaeda.
Abdul Rahman al-Sueilam, head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, said the government was trying to reach out to citizens by introducing local elections.
"This step reflects the changes and developments taking place in Saudi society. We are optimistic that this step is an attempt to allow society to participate in order to sense their needs," Sueilam told Reuters.
But Abdullah al-Hamed, a former university professor who was jailed after signing the first reform petition in the early 1990s, said nothing short of a move toward a constitutional monarchy with a parliament would reassure Saudi citizens.
"On the surface this is a step in the right direction...But we are facing the challenge of violence, and many people support Osama bin Laden and his like, and this step does not meet this challenge," he told Reuters by telephone.
"We need a publicly announced government reform strategy for a constitutional monarchy, separation of powers, a parliament and announcing civil, economic and social rights of citizens."
Analyst Dawoud al-Shiryan said the prospect of elections would help curb growing Islamic militancy by providing non-violent channels for people to air their grievances.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed the Saudi announcement of municipal elections. "We support any initiative that leads to greater participation of all elements of Saudi society in political life," he said.
A Saudi roundup of militants has intensified since a bombing in Riyadh on May 12 which killed 35 people. Interior Minister Prince Nayef said on Tuesday that more than 200 members of the Al Qaeda network had been arrested.
Saudi Arabia has come in for international criticism of its human rights record and its treatment of women, and for implementing strict sharia law punishments including public beheadings.
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