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Saudis Free Dissident After 8 Years

Islamist reformer had spoken out against corruption in the royal family and the kingdom's reliance on U.S. troops for defense.

March 26, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A Saudi political dissident whose release had been urged by Osama bin Laden in a videotape last year, and by human rights organizations around the world, has been quietly let out of prison after eight years.

Said bin Zuair, an Islamist reformer jailed in 1995 after speaking out against corruption in the Saudi royal family and the kingdom's reliance on U.S. troops for defense, was released without comment late Monday, his family said.

"With the war going on in Iraq, there's pressure on the government, so maybe they decided it might be better to let him out," Bin Zuair's son Abdullah said Tuesday. "People are angry that the Saudi government didn't help Iraq more than it did, and this might have been a way to release some of the pressure."

Hundreds of visitors trooped to the Bin Zuair residence throughout the day, and calls streamed in from numerous foreign countries to congratulate a man who had been described by human rights groups as Saudi Arabia's longest-held political prisoner.

Bin Zuair was head of the department of information at Imam Mohammed bin Saud University, a center of conservative Islamic learning, when he was arrested in early 1995. He was held without access to his family for all but four months of his incarceration and was often kept in solitary confinement, family members said.

Bin Zuair was also well-known in Islamist circles and had become something of a cause celebre among critics of the Saudi regime, including Bin Laden, whose Al Qaeda organization has targeted the Saudi government in part because of its collaboration with the U.S.

"Oh God, may you free Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in America, our ulema [Muslim scholars] in the Arabian Peninsula and other countries.... Sheik Said bin Zuair and his brethren from the jails of the land of the two holy mosques [Saudi Arabia], and the youth of Islam everywhere," Bin Laden said in a videotape that appeared on Qatar's Al Jazeera network last year on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But friends and supporters described Bin Zuair as a nonviolent academic who was targeted by the government primarily because he raised the issue of corruption in the royal family, traditionally a subject that is off-limits even in an era of more open political discussion.

Over the years, supporters said, Bin Zuair was given the chance for release if he agreed to refrain from political activities and apologized to the royal family, and in particular to the interior minister. He refused, insisting he had done nothing wrong, they said.

Interior Ministry officials had no comment on the case.

Bin Zuair, 52, was one of several Islamist intellectuals who signed a petition calling for political reform in the kingdom in 1994. At the time, conservative academics were openly complaining that corruption and the lack of democracy had left Saudi Arabia so weak that it was forced to call in U.S. and other foreign troops to defend its borders during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The presence of foreign troops so close to Mecca and Medina, the sites of the two holiest shrines in Islam, was an affront to conservative Islamists around the world and one of the main issues that motivated Bin Laden's followers after the Gulf War. It remains the biggest reason that Saudi Arabia has not permitted U.S. troops to maintain a visible presence in the kingdom during the current war with Iraq.

Several other dissidents and radical clerics were rounded up by Saudi authorities near the time of Bin Zuair's arrest, including Salman Awdah, whose fiery cassette tapes from the ultraconservative Koran Belt north of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, were the soundtrack of the then-budding Saudi revolt. Most of those detained were eventually released.

Awdah, who was freed after five years, was among the visitors who arrived Tuesday at Bin Zuair's upscale home north of Riyadh to congratulate him. Far into the night, the street outside the house was filled with well-wishers. Bin Zuair's son Abdullah said that he had received more than 300 phone calls from as far away as the U.S., Britain, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and that his brother had received "just as many."

His father, he said, was too tired to receive journalists. He said the elder man had lost more than 65 pounds during his incarceration and was not given access to adequate medical treatment.

Amjad Salfiti, a London lawyer who had been working for Bin Zuair's release, said lawyers in Britain had filed legal papers signaling their intent to seek sanctions against Saudi officials in British courts under a law that addresses torture in foreign lands. Lawyers argued that Bin Zuair's detention, without formal charges and without access to his family for years, constituted mental torture.

"We have urged the Saudi government to actually charge him, and then we could defend him in the proper venues, but they would not at all respond," Salfiti said.

Amnesty International said it was "very pleased" at the release, but it noted that Bin Zuair's son Saad bin Said bin Zuair was arrested in July 2002 and has been held without charge since then.

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