INTERVIEW-Saudi wife calls for reformer’s release

Sun Jun 29, 2008 3:21pm BSTHAER PRison



By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH, June 29 (Reuters) – When Jamila al-Ukla’s husband was taken by Saudi state security forces last month, she spent five days searching before finding him in prison, she says.

She checked hospitals and local police and called colleagues who worked in local human rights groups. When she tried to check his ransacked office on the campus of King Saud University a security guard removed her.

Ukla eventually learned that state security forces had incarcerated her husband, politics professor and political reform activist Matruk al-Faleh, in Uleisha prison in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has a closed political system controlled by the royal family in alliance with clerics who administer the implementation of an austere version of Islamic law or sharia.

Anyone who organises public challenges to this historical arrangement risks being arrested, reformers say.

The government says reform must be cautious and within limits because of the rule of Islamic law and the country’s tribal background. Its Western allies value stability because Riyadh is the world’s biggest oil exporter.

After some pleading, prison officials who felt pity agreed to take Ukla to the high-security Haer prison — where militants are held — outside Riyadh. Faleh had been moved there after refusing to cooperate with interrogators.

“I sat with him. We cried a lot. It was maybe 15 minutes,” Ukla said. “They took him chained, handcuffed and blindfold and they drove very fast to scare him. Why does he deserve to go to Haer? People have a mind to think and a dream to be better.”

Refused permission to see him since, Ukla now sends letters to King Abdullah and pleads at the Interior Ministry for a fax number for access to Deputy Minister Mohammed bin Nayef. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has asked Faleh’s release.

An Interior Ministry spokesman declined to comment.

She said she receives calls from distant women acquaintances advising her to avoid the press. Women officers in Haer suggested that Faleh “stop talking and help his family to eat”.

“When do you think Saudi Arabia will change?” Ukla asks, speaking in their modest home in Riyadh. “This is my country and I love it. How do you solve a problem if you are silent?”


Faleh, regarded as an Arab nationalist in his political views, is one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent activists for political reform who has remained in the country and resisted the temptation to campaign from the comfort of abroad.

He was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2005 along with two others for organising a petition calling for Saudi leaders to set a timeframe for transforming the closed political system into a constitutional monarchy. King Abdullah pardoned them on accession to the throne later that year but since then a number of activists have been detained without charge or any overt link between their detention and political activities.

Nine have remained behind bars since February 2006 on suspicion of involvement in “funding terrorism” — the government has won some U.S. plaudits for efforts to combat al Qaeda militants. One aimed to set up a “rally for reform” that appeared to break the taboo on political parties.

A blogger was held for over a month earlier this year after campaigning for their release.

Abdullah al-Hamed, tried and sentenced with Faleh in 2005, is serving a six-month sentence for encouraging women to demonstrate over the detention of their husbands.

Two days before his arrest Faleh had published a report detailing bad conditions of the state security prison where Hamed is being held in Buraida.

“Matruk is not against the government, he is against violence. He is against radicalism and we want to fight together with the government against radicals,” his wife said. “Now he is in Haer prison with them.” (Editing by Thomas Atkins)


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