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Mon 12 Oct 2009 03:47 PM

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Saudi activists seek to form human rights group

Eleven activists rushed out announcement amid gov't efforts to stifle plans.

A group of veteran Saudi activists challenged the government Monday by announcing a new association to push for human and political rights, saying the rights situation has deteriorated in the kingdom.

Eleven activists said they rushed out their announcement on the creation of the Association for Civil and Political Rights because the government was already trying to stifle the move by questioning potential signatories.

"The idea is to form a society to defend civil and political rights," Mohammed al-Qahtani, co-founder and a politics professor, told AFP.

"They have started interrogating people who might sign this document," he said, without offering details.

The group, including professors and law experts, sent their announcement to Saudi King Abdullah on Sunday night together with a call for the government to complete legislation that would permit the formation of private or non-governmental organisations.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and prohibits all political parties, unsanctioned private associations and NGOs.

The declaration says the group wants to address an increase in violations of human rights and political freedoms in Saudi Arabia in recent years.

They also want to study the causes of violent attacks inside the kingdom, such as those carried out by Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups since the 1990s, they said.

Pro-democracy activists in the kingdom often face arrest and detention without charge or trial, though new arrests have dwindled in the past two years, according to activists.

Since 2001, however, several thousand people have been arrested and held without charge or trial on suspicion of involvement in radical Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda.

The activists said that groups like theirs were necessary in the fight against extremist violence.

"Depriving people of being able to express peacefully their views will push them to forming secret violent organisations," they said in a statement.

"Despite a promising start to reforms in the reign of King Abdullah... these reforms have stalled," the statement said.

"The country is open now, rhetorically at least," Qahtani explained.

He cited Abdullah's programme of regular "national dialogues" on important social issues, and the opening of a new science university last month that for the first time allows men and women to mix openly.

Qahtani said the association wants to foster research on political and social issues and publicise problems in the political and human rights areas.

"Whatever goes wrong in our society is related to the political regime," he said.

They sent the declaration to King Abdullah, he added, because he "holds all the authority."

Qahtani said the activists were no longer waiting for the government to pass a long-awaited law on NGOs that would give legal basis to their association.

A draft law has sat without movement in the Council of Ministers since approval by the consultative Shura Council nearly three years ago.

Ibrahim Mugaiteeb, who runs the unsanctioned Human Rights First Society, said this is a stalling measure of anti-reformists and that activists should not wait for government permission.

"The only way to receive recognition from the government is for the government to see that they are persisting," he said.

"I am hoping that the Saudi authorities will look positively at these types of movements and organisations because we are all pro-reform, and we are actually fighting an ideological battle for the regime," Mugaiteeb told AFP.

"When it comes to fundamentalism you cannot only fight it by security," he said.

Besides the independent Human Rights First, Saudi Arabia has two officially sanctioned rights organisations, both created in 2004: one fully controlled by the government and another which operates more independently.