The pretrial proceedings of some 70 individuals charged with terrorist activities in Saudi Arabia started last week after a long wait that began after the first operation by Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia on 12 May 2003 in Riyadh.
The Saudi Ministry of Interior had announced more than once – the last time was by Prince Naif – that the accused would be presented to the Saudi courts soon. Some people attributed the delay of the trial to the preparation of a suitable judicial environment. There was talk about the establishment of a special court for state security cases, to which judges specializing in the security cases from a jurisprudence viewpoint would be appointed, i.e. these judges would be well versed in the jurisprudence of war, aggression, and deviation, which are the jurisprudence expressions related to political terrorism in the modern sense.
Now news reports tell us that there are some 12 judges who will undertake hearing these cases, and will try some 70 accused; this is according to the Saudi newspaper, Al-Watan. Two floors in the building of the General Court in Riyadh have been allocated under strict security measures for the trial. The newspaper also says that there are permanent guards protecting the chairman of the summary jurisdiction circuit, and the rest of the judges.
All this caution and care is understandable and acceptable because of the priority and importance of this trial in the history of the Saudi society. It is not an ordinary trial, or so it ought to be. It is not ordinary because of the large number of the accused, as – only in this round – there are 70 people, ranging between culprits of terrorist deeds, inciters, and financers. It is not ordinary because of the type of charges leveled at them; even if the charges focus on the criminal aspect of the killing, sabotage, and violation of security committed by the accused, these are not ordinary crimes, because they have political, intellectual, and religious contents, which is an inflammatory mixture with several ways of reading it. It is not ordinary because of the type of the judiciary hearing these accusations; it is a judiciary that adopts Islamic legislations. The Saudi officials keep stressing this aspect, which means that in this trial we will see a rich and extraordinary type of debate between those who claim to represent proper Islam, namely the supporters of the Al-Qaeda Organization, and those who deny the terrorists the capacity of representing Islam, and accuse them of corrupting religion, distorting its understanding, and using it as an excuse for murder and for violating security. It is a trial that goes beyond the 70 accused, and their companions, and that goes beyond being confined to the number of dead or the list of harm they inflicted upon the people and the country. It is a trial that opens the door for critical questions about culture and the nature of religious fanaticism that led these young men to terrorism and murder. This is because the terrorist, before he became a terrorist who kills and blows up, was a fanatic, as fanaticism is the introduction to terrorism. Will the trial be beneficial also in trying fanaticism?! It is true that the judicial system by nature does not concern itself with the discussions and debates of the intellectuals and men of culture, but it looks specifically into the penal evidence and proofs, and scrutinizes the pleadings until it reaches a perfect, or near perfect judgment, or at least tries to do so. However, it is inevitable hat there will be a huge political, ideological, and social character to this extraordinary trial; this character is not due to the judges, but it is due to those interested in this trial.
There are calls for holding these trials in public – these are trials that are going to be long under any circumstances – but the extent of response to these calls is not yet clear. According to Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyad: “While it is confirmed that the sentences against the 70 accused will be “public,” the issue of entering and attending the trial session remains in the hands of the judge personally, as he is the one to decide this according to what he considers appropriate. Moreover, every accused will be allowed to instruct a lawyer to defend him, the same as in the rest of the ordinary cases.”
Personally I wish that the trial is public and open to the media and the public, and that the accused, or those defending them, will get their full opportunity to speak, defend themselves, and present their religious and political evidence together with anything that comes to their minds to the judges before the presence eyes of the media so that everybody sees how these people think, what are their starting points, and what is their logic.
A confident public trial means that the justice system in Saudi Arabia has confidence in itself and in its stance. This is the best defense of the country against the western media and organizations that shoot their arrows of criticism at Saudi Arabia. The practical reply on the ground is better than hundreds of lectures and writings. I even wish that the trial will be open to the attendance by western and eastern journalists so that they see with their own eyes, and hear with their own ears the nature of the stance of the people in Saudi Arabia toward the terrorist ideology, and the nature of work of the Saudi judicial system. I think that this openness is the best service the Saudi can offer themselves and their identity before the world; this would be the best defense against the continuous attack on the image of the Saudi and of Saudi Arabia.
This is part of the benefits of abandoning caution, and opening up the trial to the public. The other part of the benefits is opening the wound of fanaticism, and draining the intellectual puss from it. This cannot be done by ignoring the wound and leaving it to time, because some wounds might develop into an abscess, and the calamity grows from a mere wound to become a source of disease that spreads under the skin.
Let us be frank to some extent. Everybody knows the nature of the accusation leveled at the Saudis, which is that they are supporters of terrorism and its ideology. A few days ago at the end of Abu Dhabi Film Festival I saw a film – with a special presentation at the final ceremony – directed by the US Director Ridley Scott, and starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo Di Caprio. The story of the film is about an agent of the US Intelligence, CIA, hunting down some Islamist terrorists in Iraq and Jordan. In some of the film scenes, this agent (Di Caprio) is kidnapped by Al-Qaeda members; as they torture him, he ridicules them and says that the fanatical Saudis will not benefit them however much they support them! Despite the fact that this film, which is called Body of Lies, is considered to be balanced compared to other films, it has not spared the Saudis from being attacked. Therefore, the best defense is attack and not ignoring and disregarding. One of the opportunities of this positive attack is the public trial of those accused of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, and is the opening of the debate and discussion with them to the public. First of all this is in order to defend the Saudi judicial system, and secondly in order to transfer this intellectual and political argument from the corridors of the court to the corridors of society itself. We should not deceive ourselves by saying that there is no support at all from parts of the society to the terrorists and their ideology, not to mention the support for the religious fanatics, and looking at them with reverence and psychological submission.
The real trial will be in the field of intellect and culture. It is the trial that still is fragile compared to the media attack that does not go beyond the surface of the wound to the roots of the disease. How can we deal with these roots at a time when some people who claim to fight terrorists claim that the real danger lies with those who call for reforming the religious and social address and for fighting religious fanaticism. This is because for some of those who claim that they fight terrorism anyone who calls for reform is no more than a traitor to Islam, and a follower of the enemies of Islam! This is very strange. How can these people call for fighting terrorism on the one hand, while, on the other hand, they refuse to criticize its intellectual bases?!
We have to register that undertaking this courageous step ought to be recorded in favor of Saudi Arabia, particularly in favor of the security authorities that referred the accused, despite their large number and the sensitivity of their case, to the courts, and that informed the media about these steps. Now, it is the turn of the Saudi judiciary, whose role will be the most important one in this major story; this is the most important trial in the history of Saudi Arabia.