New York, NY, May 6, 2005—With a verdict due in the next two weeks in the trial of three prominent intellectuals jailed for proposing democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, PEN joined Saudi and international human rights groups in calling for the unconditional release of the reformers, calling the proceedings a key test of whether Saudi citizens will have a voice in shaping their country’s political future.

Poet Ali Al-Domaini and Matrook Al-Falah and Abdullah Al-Hamed, two other leading intellectuals, were among 13 Saudi intellectuals arrested on March 16, 2004 for criticizing a newly established National Commission on Human Rights and planning to set up their own human rights organization. Ten of those detained were later released after signing statements pledging to stop advocating for reforms. Al-Domaini, Al-Falah, and Al-Hamed refused to renounce their political activism, and were subsequently put on trial on August 9, 2004 for threatening national unity, doubting the independence of the Saudi judiciary, organizing meetings and justifying violence, among other charges.

Despite their demand to be tried in an open court, the proceedings have been carried out behind closed doors and postponed repeatedly. On November 9, 2004, the attorney representing Dr. Al-Falah was arrested for making a public petition to Crown Prince Abdullah demanding a fair trial for the three. More recently, the trial was adjourned several times when the prosecutor requested time to ‘collect additional evidence” against the defendants. Prosecutors apparently renewed this request at a trial hearing this past Monday, but the judge reportedly denied that request and indicated he will be issuing a verdict in the next two weeks. The arrests and trial of Al-Domaini, Al-Falah, and Al-Hamed have sent a chill through civil society in Saudi Arabia. In the year before their arrests, groups of citizens submitted petitions to the Crown Prince criticizing the pace of reforms, calling attention to discrimination against the country’s Shi’a minority, advocating the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and calling for greater rights for women. But as the U.S. State Department noted in its 2004 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, “after the March arrest of the reformers, there were no further petitions.”

Last month, PEN American Center awarded Ali Al-Domaini one of two 2005 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards honoring literary figures who have been persecuted for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. In announcing the award, Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems stressed the significance of the trial for all Saudi writers and citizens. “The eyes of the world are on the Middle East now, and on encouraging signs that opportunities are expanding for citizens to express their views and participate in political activities in several countries in the region. These developments owe a great deal to individuals like Ali Al-Domaini, intellectual leaders who have openly and peacefully advocated reform at considerable personal risk. The fact that Ali Al-Domaini remains in jail over a year after his arrest is an indication that the struggle to ensure essential rights including freedom of expression may still be in its early stages.”

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 106, lsiems@pen.org