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In this surreptitious photograph courtesy of Amnesty International, a public flogging is carried out in Saudi Arabia.

Awful Saudi rights record escapes our notice

[an error occurred while processing this directive] By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001

Among the countries that routinely violate human rights, few can top Saudi Arabia. Consider this:

As you might glean from these chilling statements obtained by Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia's Islamic government bans or severely restricts freedom of speech, religion, the press and assembly. There are no political parties, no way to change the government through peaceful, democratic means. Women are not permitted to drive cars or even to ride a public bus without a male relative's permission.

For those unlucky enough to be arrested, there is no right to legal counsel. Torture is used to extract "confessions" that often constitute the only evidence considered at trial. And the trials are usually short and secret: The sentence, often pronounced immediately after the verdict, can be flogging, amputation or beheading.

As appalling as this sounds, Americans rarely hear of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia although they are bombarded with horror stories about China and Iraq. Why is the United States so silent when it comes to the Saudis?

"One three-letter word -- oil," says Clement Henry, a professor at the University of Texas. "We demonize Iraq and we never say anything about Saudi Arabia and this is just a matter of how America views its allies and its enemies."

Although the United States gets more oil from other countries, there's no overlooking that Saudi Arabia has the world's largest oil reserves. It is the major player when it comes to setting global oil prices -- a player our gas-guzzling nation is reluctant to offend.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is one of America's closest friends in a region where we have several enemies, most notably Iraq. Some 7,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed at bases on Saudi sand, from which American and British jets patrol the no-fly zones over southern Iraq.

Saudi Arabia also has a formidable military, equipped in large part by U.S. companies eager to maintain good relations with their Saudi customers.

And though the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence has incited anti-American sentiment among the Saudi people, the United States views the Saudi government as a key Arab ally in efforts to reach a Middle East peace.

This isn't to say the United States has zero bargaining power when it comes to getting the Saudis to improve their dismal human rights record.

"There is nobody else who can really protect them as well as we can," Henry says. "They can't rely on Europe as much and they feel the need for protection against Iran and Iraq so they're sort of stuck in our arms. I suppose that's leverage for the United States but to exercise it in some blunt way is not going to work and it's going to take generations."

Human Rights Watch, a monitoring organization, sees a few encouraging signs the Saudis have become more open to change.

For the first time, the country is among the the rotating members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. As a result, it has signed international treaties to ban torture and to protect the rights of children. (A U.N. panel, though, recently blasted the Saudis for discriminating against women, using "inhuman" forms of punishment and failing to define the age of adulthood, leading to fears children younger than 18 could be put to death.)

In the next few months, a U.S. delegation will visit Saudi Arabia to determine if its repression of religious minorities warrants economic, cultural or military sanctions. The International Religious Freedom Act, passed by Congress in 1998, requires the United States to consider religious persecution in setting foreign policy.

"The problem isn't Islam -- the problem is the Saudis' very rigid interpretation of Islam," says Joe Stork, a Middle East expert for Human Rights Watch.

Stork thinks the Saudis are loosening up, at least rhetorically, but notes the country still engages in practices condemned by international law. At present it is holding three foreigners -- a Briton, a Canadian and a Belgian -- who allegedly confessed to a fatal car bombing.

Although the men were arrested in mid-December they were held incommunicado until late January. Their likely fate: decapitation by sword.

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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