JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabian authorities are deploying a range of judicial methods to stifle the country's pro-democracy and human rights campaigners in a crackdown on dissent that includes jail terms and travel bans, according to activists.
Some rights defenders who have been held for years without trial had been presented to court in recent months in cases that demonstrate a change in the process of dealing with political prisoners, activists and lawyers told Reuters.
They said seven rights advocates, including professors and lawyers, had been investigated in the past five months and 20 had been banned from travel. Four of those investigated are facing trial while one has been sentenced to four years in jail.
"I believe that these trials come in the context of the suppression of the human rights movement," Abdullah al-Hamid, a former professor on trial on charges of inciting the public told Reuters. "Instead of introducing reforms to move away from police coercion, the government is putting activists on trial."
Two of the cases had been presented in specialized criminal courts, which were set up to deal with terrorism and security related issues. Their charges range from tarnishing the country's reputation and questioning the independence of its judiciary to owning illegal books.
A spokesman for the Justice Ministry declined to comment on the cases. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry could not immediately comment on accusations the government was cracking down on activists.
However, government supporters have previously accused activists of furthering the agenda of radical Islamists by pursuing changes that they fear could destabilize the U.S. ally.
The activists represent groups that have called for the conservative Islamic kingdom to become a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and have charged the government with human rights abuses including wrongful detention and torture.
The Saudi Interior Ministry says there are no political prisoners in the kingdom and the government-linked Human Rights Commission said this month it had not found any cases of Saudi prisoners being hurt in custody.
The Gulf monarchy and world's top oil exporter has a low tolerance for public dissent. The kingdom has no codified legal system and most top government jobs are held by high ranking royals.
Saudi Arabia has avoided the kind of civil unrest that toppled leaders across the region last year after it announced massive social spending packages and issued a religious edict banning public demonstrations.
King Abdullah has pushed some economic and social reforms in his seven-year reign, including cautious moves to improve the position of women and religious minorities, but he has left the political system untouched.
Activists had previously said the late interior minister, Crown Prince Nayef, was the leading proponent of a tough line against dissent and that a petition they signed against his appointment as crown prince in March had prompted renewed scrutiny of their work.
However, they say they are doubtful that the new Interior Minister, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, appointed after Nayef died in June, will adopt a more lenient position.
"In this country they are not willing to make concessions," said Mohammad al-Qahtani, an activist facing trial on charges of "implanting the seeds of sedition and division" and challenging officials, among 11 other charges listed in a court document viewed by Reuters.
"The minister has done nothing and I believe he will not do anything to change that in the future until there is pressure from the people," he said.
While the new round of trials was seen as a setback by some, Saudi political analyst Khalid al-Dakhil said the fact that activists were being investigated or tried rather than being jailed without charge was a positive step for the rights movement.
"That's an improvement. It is part of the political process. First there were detentions with no charges or a trial. Now there are trials taking place... For me this means the process to recognize the legitimacy of demonstrations is moving forward," Dakhil said.
Mukhlef al-Shammari, a human rights defender and writer, said that he was put on trial four months ago after being detained for two years on account of "annoying others".
He told Reuters by telephone that he was now facing charges including attempting to "tarnish the country's reputation", praising a "Christian prince" - after he wrote an article lauding a humanitarian deed by Britain's Prince William - and expressing condolence for the death of a Christian.
A Justice Ministry spokesman declined comment on the case.
In April a court in the capital Riyadh sentenced Mohammed al-Bajadi, a prominent rights campaigner who was held for one year without charges after voicing support for families of prisoners demonstrating for the release of jailed relatives, to four years in prison.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif)