Lucy Popescu

Ali al-Domaini and Dr Matrouq al-Faleh

Ali al-Domaini, a leading Saudi Arabian writer and poet, and Dr Matrouq al-Faleh, an academic, were arrested in March 2004 and charged with threatening ‘national unity’. They are both known for their peaceful advocacy of political reform in Saudi Arabia. One year on and the two men remain in prison without having been brought to trial. It is believed that the continued detention of al-Domaini and Dr al-Faleh is due to their refusal to renounce their political activism. To mark the first anniversary of their arrest, human-rights organisations renewed their call for the men’s release. 

Modern Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 when Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud unified various regions of the Arabian Peninsula into one nation and was proclaimed King. Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy (all its rulers since then have been descendants of Ibn Saud), with a political system rooted in Islamic Sharia law.

Human Rights Watch considers human-rights violations to be widespread in Saudi Arabia, and that, despite international and domestic pressure to implement reforms, improvements have been slow and inadequate. In a recent report the organisation notes:

Many basic human rights are not protected under Saudi law, political parties are not allowed, and freedom of expression remains extremely limited. In recent years, the government has carried out a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Saudi Arabian human-rights defenders and has stifled all efforts to establish independent groups to monitor and report on abuses.

The United Kingdom has significant political and commercial interests in Saudi Arabia. Although Saudi Arabia has long been a close ally of the UK, the British Government states that it is committed to raising the question of human rights with the Saudi authorities at every opportunity. Of particular concern to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are: certain aspects of the judicial system; the use of torture; restrictions of freedom of expression, assembly and worship; and the need for the implementation of basic international human-rights norms.

In January 2003 Crown Prince Abdullah set out proposals for ‘self-reform and the promotion of political participation’ in the Arab world, and in 2004 he established the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR). However, because the Commission consists mainly of government officials, it has been criticised for lacking independence.

Many liberal and opposition figures want to see speedier and more wide-ranging reforms than those offered by the Saudi government. Last year, al-Domaini and al-Faleh, together with eleven other activists, attempted to circulate a petition calling for Saudi Arabia to become a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. They also made moves to establish a human-rights group that would be independent of the government. All thirteen of them were arrested at the same time, but ten were released within a few weeks, after agreeing to halt their public petition efforts. Following the arrests, over 100 Saudi citizens signed a statement of solidarity with the men.

Al-Domaini, Dr al-Faleh, and another reformist intellectual, Dr Abdullah al-Hamed, were accused of promoting a constitutional monarchy and using Western terminology in their demands for reform. A Ministry of the Interior official reportedly announced that they were suspected of ‘issuing statements which do not serve the unity of the country or the cohesion of society … based on Islamic religion’, although no formal charges are known. Al-Domaini is a diabetic and was reportedly held incommunicado without access to his medication for several days following his arrest.

Proceedings against the men began on 9 August 2004 at an Islamic court in Riyadh, and the decision to hold their trial in public was welcomed by Amnesty International and others. However, the trial was adjourned early in October, reportedly because the defendants refused to answer questions in a closed hearing. There were two more hearings on 16 February and 12 March, but at the time of writing no further information is available. No further date has been set and it is also unclear what kind of verdict they might face if convicted, as the Judge will determine the sentence according to Sharia law.

Al-Domaini is a well-known writer and editor and his publications include three collections of poetry and a novel. Dr al-Faleh was a political-science teacher at the King Saud University in Riyadh and has published a number of books. He also wrote a widely read article on Saudi Arabia after 11 September 2001, calling for fundamental political reforms in the kingdom. He was reportedly banned from teaching in January 2003 after the article was published in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Qudis.

The New England Branch of PEN recently announced that they would be awarding the Vasyl Stus Award to al-Domaini. The award ‘recognises a writer who has been persecuted for the peaceful expression of his/her views, and whose courage in the face of censorship has been exemplary’.

Various PEN centres around the world have adopted Ali al-Domaini as an honorary member, and are convinced that both he and Dr Matrouq al-Faleh are being held solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions. Readers can send appeals calling for their immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to:

Minister of Justice
His Excellency Dr Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Sheikh
Ministry of Justice
University Street
Riyadh 11137
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: 00 966 1 401 1741

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