New York, NY, May 15, 2005—PEN, the international writers’ organization dedicated to defending writers and freedom of expression around the world, reacted with shock to the announcement that Saudi poet Ali Al-Domaini has been sentenced to nine years in prison for criticizing the pace of political reforms in Saudi Arabia. Two co-defendants, Abdullah al-Hamed and Matruk al-Faleh, received seven- and six- year prison terms respectively. PEN called the trials and convictions of the three reform advocates a clear violation of international guarantees of the right to freedom of expression and a disturbing sign that Saudi Arabia may now be among the most restrictive environments for writers and free speech in the region.

Ali Al-Domaini was among thirteen leading intellectuals and peaceful reform advocates who were arrested in March of 2004 for expressing dissatisfaction with the composition of a new government human rights organization and announcing their intentions to set up an independent human rights monitor. Ten of the thirteen were released after signing affidavits renouncing their political activism. Al-Domaini, al-Hamed and al-Faleh refused to sign such declarations, and demanded instead to be tried in open court, a right guaranteed under the Saudi constitution. At first it appeared their request would be granted, but after the first hearing all proceedings were held in secret. In November, a leading human rights attorney representing one of the defendants was arrested for criticizing the closed-door proceedings.

The trial of the three prominent reformers has reportedly sent a chill through civil society in Saudi Arabia. In the year before their arrest, citizens’ groups had petitioned the government on issues of women’s and minority rights and on the need for more comprehensive reforms, but the U.S. State Department reported in its annual human rights assessment that no grassroots petitions have been submitted since their arrest. The draconian sentences handed down today against the three seem intended to discourage political activity even further.

“The court and the government of Saudi Arabia had an opportunity to show the world that essential rights like the right to assemble peacefully, express dissent, and have a fair and open trail are as valued and protected there as they are elsewhere,” PEN American Center Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems said today in New York. “Instead, with these verdicts, the message seems to be that Saudi citizens may not participate in political discussions about their future at even the most basic level. As writers and members of PEN, we condemn these verdicts and express our solidarity with the families of Ali Al-Domaini, Abdullah al-Hamed and Matruk al-Faleh. We call on governments around the world, including the United States government, to join in protesting these verdicts and to press the Saudi government to review and reverse these unjust sentences.”

 Larry Siems, (212)334-1660 ext. 106