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Feb 9 2005
Religious Freedom Watchdog Urges Action Against Saudi Arabia

Patrick Goodenough

International Editor

( - A religious freedom organization is urging Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to impose travel and other restrictions on Saudi Arabia within the next month because of severe freedom of religion violations in the kingdom.

Having last year designated Saudi Arabia a "country of particular concern" because of its abuses, the State Department is required by March 15 to take specific steps, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) told Rice in a letter this week.

The commission, a body set up under the International Religious Freedom Act, says Saudi Arabia strictly prohibits all public religious expression other than those that follow the government's interpretation of Islam.

Violations include torture, cruel and degrading treatment, detention without charge, coercive measures aimed at women, and the wide jurisdiction of the religious police.

The kingdom also is accused of funding or otherwise supporting the spreading abroad of an ideology of hatred, intolerance and violence.

For four consecutive years, the USCIRF urged the State Department to add Saudi Arabia to the list of "countries of particular concern" (CPCs),but it was only last September that former Secretary of State Colin Powell did so.

The government is empowered to take a range of actions against CPCs, but has in past years done no more than invoke already-existing sanctions against those on the list, including China, Iran, Burma, North Korea and Sudan.

The USCIRF has been critical of this inaction, and in her letter to Rice, commission chair Preeta Bansal again raised what she called "this failure in U.S. foreign policy."

With the U.S. relying on pre-existing sanctions, there was little incentive for CPC governments to improve their behavior, she said. Failure to take further action suggested to the violators that Washington could or would do nothing more.

Saudi Arabia is one of three newcomers to the CPC list, the others being Vietnam and Eritrea.

Bansal said their designation last September provides Rice with the opportunity to take specific measures against them, as no pre-existing sanctions are in place against the trio.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the commission recommended that the U.S. identify Saudi government officials responsible for severe violations and not allow them entry into the country. It should also bar officials who propagated around the world "an ideology that explicitly promotes hate, intolerance, and human rights violations."

The government should also issue a demarche (warning), urging Riyadh to stop funding or other support for literature or other activity promoting hate, intolerance, and human rights violations, "including the distribution of such materials in the United States and elsewhere outside of Saudi Arabia."

Further, the U.S. should not issue licenses to export "dual-use" items - materials that could be used for both military and civilian purposes -- to any Saudi government agency responsible for severe abuses, it recommended.

Last year, shackles, leg-irons "and other items that could be used to perpetrate human rights violations" were among goods exported from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia.

"As world events of the past several years have confirmed, ensuring that governments respect freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief both advances our strategic interests and is a vital component of securing broader freedoms," Bansal said.

'Don't use waiver'

Saudi Arabia is considered a key Mideast ally of the U.S., and successive administrations have avoided direct criticism.

Since the religious freedom act was passed in 1999, the USCIRF has been calling for the kingdom to be named a CPC.

But although the State Department itself asserted that freedom of religion "does not exist" in Saudi Arabia - one of the harshest assessments in its annual global evaluation - neither former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright nor Powell complied, until 2004.

The USCIRF said this week the steps that it was recommending would target those Saudi officials responsible for abuses.

"Targeting the restrictions in this way will not directly impede U.S.-Saudi cooperation in the war against terrorism."

The actions would represent "a public acknowledgement that the extent and nature of violations of freedom of religion or belief in Saudi Arabia will have a measurable impact on the Saudi-U.S. bilateral relationship."

Saudi support for the global propagation of an ideology that promotes hatred and violence undermined U.S. interests, it said.

At the same time, reform and democratization inside Saudi Arabia was being impeded by the repression of religious freedom at home.

Bansal said that although the religious freedom act does provide a waiver option, the commission believed that not taking action in response to CPC designations would render the process meaningless and undermine America's commitment to promoting freedom of religion.

The commission also recommended measures against the other newcomers to the CPC list, Vietnam and Eritrea.

In Vietnam, the communist regime is accused of oppressing followers of non-recognized religions, especially ethnic minority Protestants and independent Buddhists. Officials have also shut down hundreds of churches, and allegedly attempted to pressure ethnic minority Christians into recanting their faith.

The government of Eritrea, a small, war torn country in north-east Africa, has close links with the Orthodox Church, and members of other traditions, including evangelical Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, experience repression.

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