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UPDATE 1-Saudi dissidents form pro-democracy political group

Wed, 23rd Sep 2020 18:30

(Adds request for comment sent to Saudi government)

DUBAI, Sept 23 (Reuters) - A group of Saudi dissidents, most
of them in exile, on Wednesday announced the formation of a
party to push for political reform in Saudi Arabia in defiance
of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who has moved
to crush any dissent.

The world's top oil exporter and U.S. ally is an absolute
monarchy without an elected parliament or political parties.
Past attempts to organise politically in the Gulf state in 2007
and 2011 were suppressed and members arrested.

The National Assembly Party (NAAS) declaration called for an
elected parliament and constitutional safeguards to ensure
separation of the legislative, judicial and executive branches.

"The scope for politics has become blocked in all
directions," it said, calling for peaceful change to combat
state "violence and repression."

The Saudi government communications office did not
immediately respond to a request for comment. Saudi authorities
have repeatedly denied allegations by human rights groups that
they perpetrate abuses.

King Salman, who had surgery in July, has delegated most
responsibilities to his 34-year-old son and heir, who became
crown prince in a 2017 palace coup and consolidated power.

Prince Mohammed was initially hailed at home and abroad for
bold reforms to open up the kingdom and diversify its economy,
but his image in the West was tarnished by the 2018 murder of
journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.

A Saudi court has jailed eight people for between seven and
20 years for the murder. Saudi officials denied Prince Mohammed
played a role, but in September 2019 he indicated some personal
accountability, saying "it happened under my watch".

The reforms he has introduced have been accompanied by the
detention of clerics, activists and intellectuals, a secretive
purge of royals and other prominent Saudis for alleged
corruption, and the sidelining of rivals to the throne.

"The timing is very important ... the climate of repression
is only increasing," party member and academic Madawi al-Rasheed
told Reuters. She said NAAS would work with international
organisations like the United Nations and human rights groups,
without agitating for protests in the kingdom.

Saudi experts say while Prince Mohammed has fuelled
resentment among some royals, he has the support of others and
of the security apparatus and is popular among Saudi youth.

Party members include Yahya Assiri, head of UK-based Saudi
rights group ALQST, Abdullah al-Awdah, son of jailed Islamist
preacher Salman al-Awdah, prominent scholar Saeed bin Nasser
al-Ghamdi and Shi'ite activist Ahmed al-Mshikhs. Abdullah
al-Awdah told Reuters NAAS aimed to create a national movement
by working with "everybody from inside and outside the royal
family".
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Gulf team; Editing by
William Maclean)

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