The unofficial Islamic Umma party, which was set up in February, posted on its Website a call for religious scholars to speak out against what it called “laws that aim to seize the citizens’ right to criticize the government.”
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that rules in alliance with Islamic clerics and follows an austere version of Sunni Islam. A ruling circle including the king and senior princes maintains a system that bans political parties and public protests. It has an appointed body with limited legislative powers that acts as a quasi-parliament.
Saudi Arabia rejected the accusation, saying the law – if enacted -- will be used against militants. Al Qaeda launched a campaign against Riyadh in 2003 but it petered out in 2006 after a security crackdown in cooperation with Western security agencies.
The draft law imposes a minimum 10-year jail sentence for anyone who criticized the king or crown prince and would consider “endangering... national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its position” as terrorism crimes.
It also grants the Interior Minister wide-ranging powers to take action to protect internal security, without requiring judicial authorization or oversight.
“The penal law, which considers criticism of the government a terrorist crime, is not in accordance with Islamic sharia,” the Umma party said in a statement on its Website.
It urged scholars to speak out against it. Scholars in Saudi Arabia have a major influence. Almost no Saudis answered a call for protest on March 11 after religious scholars in the kingdom issued fatwas (religious edicts) banning protests.
The group’s leader, Abdelaziz Al Wohaiby, has been in detention since February, though other founding members were released after a few days in custody.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil exporter and a US ally, has reacted with concern to the spate of popular protests spreading throughout the Middle East.
It sent troops to Bahrain to help suppress protests, hosts exiled Tunisian leader Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali and is hosting Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh after he was seriously wounded in a bomb attack in June.