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Saudi to try 991 suspects over al Qaeda violence

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia indicted 991 suspected al Qaeda militants for carrying out 30 attacks since 2003, Saudi media reported on Tuesday. A statement from Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz said charges had been laid against the suspects, who have been handed over to the courts for trials.

People enter and leave Riyadh's general court October 20, 2008. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

“Saudi Arabia has faced in recent years an organized terrorist campaign that struck at society, its way of life and the economy ... and it was directly linked to the organization called al Qaeda,” the statement said.

The indictments aim to put an end to a chapter of violent opposition to the government run by the Al Saud ruling family in alliance with clerics.

The accused include some clerics who had publicly backed the militants, including Nasser al-Fahd, Ali al-Khodeir and Faris al-Shuweil, sources told Reuters. Fahd and Khodeir appeared on Saudi state television after their arrests in 2003 to call for an end to the bloodshed.

The group called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began a campaign to destabilize the U.S.-allied government in 2003 but the violence was brought to a halt by security forces in cooperation with foreign experts. Tuesday’s statement cited a figure of 30 attacks, from suicide bomb attacks on housing compounds in Riyadh in 2003 to an attempt to storm the world’s biggest oil processing plant at Abqaiq in 2006, the last militant operation of note.

It said more than 160 planned attacks had been foiled and the dead included 74 members of the security forces and 90 ordinary Saudis and foreign residents. It did not say how many militants died in the campaign. It said cyanide gas was among the weapons seized during the crackdown.

An Interior Ministry spokesman told Al Arabiya television that most of the indicted men are Saudi nationals.

Judges in Riyadh’s general court began viewing the cases on Monday, but it was not clear when the trials would begin.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the trials may not meet international standards.

“The precise charges against the defendants remain unclear because the kingdom has no written penal code and existing rulings do not constitute binding judicial precedent,” a statement said. “Human Rights Watch is seeking permission from the government of Saudi Arabia to attend the trials.”

Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told journalists on Tuesday that HRW was welcome to approach the government’s Human Rights Commission in order to attend.

HRW said between 2,000 and 3,000 people were still detained without charge, after 1,500 were released without trial through “re-education” programs. Authorities arrested hundreds over the last year on suspicion of trying to revive militant cells.

Prince Nayef said the trials would take place in the existing court system, after two years of speculation that the Saudi government would set up special courts for the purpose.

“The system allows for trials before judges without setting up new mechanisms or procedures and the transfer to court of 991 suspects to the court has taken place after charges were laid,” his statement said.

Saudi justice has been slated for reform by King Abdullah, partly because World Trade Organization membership requires changes in the status of its commercial tribunals.

The Islamic Sharia courts are overseen by cleric-judges of Saudi Arabia’s austere version of Sunni Islam. Judges often refuse defendants the right of legal representation.

Editing by Samia Nakhoul