A group of Islamists tried to set up a political party in February. They are one of many small groups of activists on the scene right now but were obviously sticking their heads out further than most. Seven were arrested and of those one, the leader, remains in jail: Dr Abdelaziz al-Wohaiby.
Wohaiby was involved in the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights set up Mohammed al-Mas’ari, Saad al-Fagih, Abdullah al-Hamed and others in 1993, when Islamists were leading the democracy movement in Saudi Arabia. Al-Hamed was one of three tried in 2004-5 for a second try, involving more secularists this time, in the period after the September 11 attacks of 2001. But like many others he’s gone a bit quiet when it comes to activism.
This statement issued on Tuesday of this week has been published on the Umma party website, which only manages to stay in operation because party members – and let’s not kid ourselves, we’re talking maybe dozens at the most – have got out of the country.
It attacks the Draft Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing Terrorism, which was leaked to Amnesty International last week, for treating the king and crown prince as if they are above the standards of Islamic behaviour and acccountability that apply to everyone else according the principle of al-amr bi-ma’ruf wa-l-nahy ‘an il-munkar. This is because it says explicitly that you can’t question their “integrity”.
“Anyone who doubts the king or crown prince’s integrity will face punishment of at least 10 years in jail,” it says. Same goes for questioning – how, where? – their amana, a vague term that could mean honesty, loyalty or good faith. Here’s a copy of it (thanks to Amnesty, whose website you now cannot access from inside Saudi Arabia): http://www.amnesty.org/sites/impact.amnesty.org/files/PUBLIC/Saudi%20anti-terror.pdf.
Generally speaking, I think the Umma party people have gotten off lightly, and I’m wondering why. Their treatment doesn’t compare to that suffered by nine activists, also of an Islamist bent, who organised a petition and met together in 2007 to discuss just the idea of setting up a political party. Only this year has the case come to court – and what kind of court? It is a specialised court that is so special that it’s convened in a villa owned by the Interior Ministry in a northern suburb of Jeddah.
This week the authorities suddenly allowed in selected journalists from Saudi newspapers after Asharq al-Awsat gave the first public acknowledgement that the trial was even taking place around two weeks ago. This was it: http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=630876&issueno=11915. It calls them a “secret group” that sought to “reach power in cooperation with al-Qa’ida”, which is interesting for what the language it doesn’t use as much as the language it does use. They are not seeking to “overturn the system the government” or stage a coup. In fact, they were involved in public charity work involving Iraqi Sunnis and Palestinians and Interior Ministry officials turned up at Dr Saud Mokhtar al-Hashemi’s weekly salon – or diwaniyya – where money was raised for Hamas in January 2006.
Hashemi, Suleiman al-Rushoudi and the others involved have more prestige in the small circle of the opposition intelligentsia than Wohaiby and co. They are familiar figures in Jeddah society, indeed in Saudi Arabia generally through Hashemi’s work with the Saudi Red Crescent. They were alarming enough to warrant a meeting with Prince Nayef in 2006 in which he lost his temper with them, one person who was there told me.
Wohaiby is less of a threat. Saudi rights activist Mohammed al-Qahtani thinks the government might even have let Wohaiby get away with his announcement of setting up a party if he had not also called for street mobilisations in February. “They made tactical mistakes and could have avoided detention altogether. If you understand the psyche of this regime, you can do stuff,” he says. ” The guys in Jeddah are far more important in terms of their status in society.”