Monitoring Bush: Support Saudi democrats

Three Saudi liberal democrats– exactly the sort of people Western governments should be supporting in a country ruled by such a benighted regime– have been sentenced to lengthy prison stays after circulating a petition calling for a peaceful transition to constitutional democracy. They were tried after they bravely refused to sign pledges not to make further public statements or talk to the foreign press.

According to a Washington Post editorial:

[Ali] Dumaini, who received the stiffest sentence of nine years, further offended his captors by describing the Saudi educational system and Wahhabi religious ideology as causes of extremism — an observation that by now is obvious to anyone following the stream of Saudi recruits for extremist causes ranging from the Sept. 11 attacks to the Iraqi insurgency.
The trial process simply served to demonstrate why the intellectuals’ original dissent was justified. One open session was held last August; when supporters of the accused appeared there, the judge closed all subsequent sessions. Several lawyers for the defense were disqualified, and one was himself arrested after he refused to keep quiet. Inside the court, prosecutors accused the intellectuals of such crimes as “disobeying rulers” and speaking to foreign journalists.

In a country where al Qaeda has been active and extremist groups recruit young men for suicide attacks against Iraqi and American soldiers, these would seem to be fairly minor offenses. Yet a Saudi government that has seen fit to pardon associates of al Qaeda proposes to imprison three intellectuals for six, seven and nine years for suggesting that a democratic rule of law gradually replace the power monopoly of the Saudi royal family. The message to society is clear: no independent reform movements, however small or moderate, will be tolerated; any change in Saudi Arabia will be dictated from above.

The Bush administration’s response to this outrage has been disappointingly muted. On Wednesday the State Department belatedly declared itself “troubled by the outcome” of the case, adding with almost comical understatement that the trials “appear to have been conducted in a somewhat irregular fashion.” Mr. Bush himself has been silent. That doesn’t sound like the president who, in his last inaugural address, promised “democratic reformers facing repression” that “when you stand for your liberty we will stand with you.” If he is to keep faith with those words, Mr. Bush should stand up for Ali Dumaini, Matrouk Faleh and Abdullah Hamed.

Instead of holding hands with their oppressors, Bush should be symbolically joining hands with these three courageous men.