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In Saudi Arabia, a softer approach to fighting terror

Chief anti-terror official engages extremists to turn them away from militancy.

The prince’s counterterrorism strategy, however, is not without critics. Saudi and foreign human rights activists denounce the liberal use of long-term detentions and solitary confinement for suspected militants, and secret trials for accused extremists.

“Now the government is detaining thousands of young people, for five and six years” as part of a “preventive policy,” said Mohammad A. Al Hodaif, a quality control official at a religious television network. “Many people have advised the government that these detained people will be in the future like a time-bomb.”

In 2007, the interior ministry said 3,106 of 9,000 security suspects arrested since 2003 were still being held. The current number is not disclosed, but rights activists said most are being held without charges or access to courts, including 73-year-old judge, Suliman Al Reshoudi, a government critic who has been detained for three years.

“So many families and wives call and say, ‘My husband is in jail for months, even years, for no reason,’” said Riyadh-based Mohammad Al Qahtani, co-founder of Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. “Usually they are accused of being extremists.”

Al Qahtani also charges that the antiterror program is used to repress democratic reformers. “I was approached by envoys from Prince Muhammad to meet with our group ... more than a year ago,” said Al Qahtani. “I thought he was more open-minded than his father but that meeting never materialized.”

Al Qahtani said he believed that “most arrests which take place are at his order,” adding: “He should approach ... someone like me, a peaceful activist, with more tolerance.”

And although Prince Muhammad is said to have imposed curbs on physical abuse of security detainees so as not to further radicalize them, torture has not completely disappeared from Saudi prisons, human rights observers say.

While torture has not stopped for security detainees, it “is not being practiced with the methodical intensity that seems to have been done in the 1990s,” said Christoph Wilcke, who follows Saudi Arabia for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The physical torture we have seen in the past, such as using electricity on body parts, the traditional beating on the soles of feet, suspending in air ... Allegations of such treatment are exceedingly rare these days.”

Instead, Wilcke said, “we have seen prolonged solitary confinement as the preferred method to weaken a detainee.”

Wilcke added that he still gets “quite a number of complaints of torture from Saudi regular prisons,” as well as “indirect accounts” about the “widespread” use of torture in interrogations and police stations.

Finally, in 2008, the government announced that it planned to bring almost 1,000 security detainees to trial. Several months later, it disclosed that 330 of them had been secretly tried and most sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths; one got the death penalty.

Saudi rights activists and lawyers in touch with families of detainees describe the trials as summary judgments in which the defendants did not have appropriate opportunities to challenge evidence presented by prosecutors — who are from the Interior Ministry.

Abdelaziz M. al Gasim, a former judge who now works as an attorney called the trials “shameful” because “there are no lawyers, no family, no audience, no journalists.”

Despite these criticisms and at least two attempts on Prince Muhammad’s life prior to last year’s attack, he is staying on course because he believes his policies are succeeding.

As he told the author Lacey, the militants “know that it is us, not them, who can count on the support of the community — and that is the battle that really matters. We are building a national consensus that extremism is wrong … Whoever wins society will win this war.”