08/09/2005, 00.00
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King Abdullah pardons detainees . . . Muslim ones that is

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Saudi Arabia's new king has pardoned five activists, including three reformists serving jail time for advocating a constitutional monarchy, and a number of Libyans accused of plotting to assassinate him. Relatives of the pardoned Saudis hailed the Abdullah's action as a step opening a new page in the history of the ultra-conservative kingdom.

A week from his appointment as king, Abdullah freed Ali al-Demaini, Abdullah al-Hamed and Matruk al-Faleh, who had been sentenced respectively to 9, 7 and 6 years in jail for "stirring up sedition and disobeying the ruler".

The three men belonged to a 12-member group of activists detained in March 2004 charged with using Western terminology to demand reforms. The others were released earlier after they pledged they would not publicly talk about the reforms.

The king also pardoned Islamist Saeed bin Zueir, a former professor of mass communications, who was serving a five-year sentence for publicly justifying violent acts in Riyadh.

For many observers, the king's "clemency" is a political move designed to limit foreign criticism. Both the US government and international human rights groups had in fact criticised the crackdown and arrests. Releasing the prisoners thus reduces the scope of their disapproval.

The decision to free the Libyans is also seen as a way to "close ranks" among Arabs and bridge the gap with Libya.

It is important to note though that only Muslims were pardoned. Yet, several news reports by AsiaNews have indicated that dozens of Christians are unjustly languishing in Saudi jails for expressing their faith in the privacy of their homes.

In the Muslim world, the Saudi monarchy has the reputation of being the "most corrupt regime on earth".

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