DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – With global attention focused on upheaval elsewhere in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia quietly intensified its clampdown on dissent in 2013, silencing democracy advocates and human rights defenders with arrests, trials and intimidation in what reformists say was one of the darkest years ever for their efforts in the powerful U.S.-allied Gulf state.
The clampdown reflects the highly delicate times that the world's top oil producer is passing through.
The monarchy is trying to modernize the country's economy to reduce its reliance on oil revenues and create a more diverse private sector to provide jobs for a grumbling population. To manage the shifts, activists say it has manipulated the divisions in Saudi society, playing on tribal sentiments and shifting between Saudis who seek a more liberal lifestyle and the ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics who traditionally give the royal family legitimacy.
As it navigates those currents, the monarchy is blunting calls for political reform, fearing an Arab Spring-style upheaval that would rattle the ruling family's grip on power.
This year, at least nine prominent reformers were given lengthy jail sentences for offenses including "breaking allegiance with the king." A leading rights lawyer was forced to flee the kingdom for fear of arrest. One of the kingdom's most prominent rights organizations — the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known in Arabic by its acronym HASEM — was shut down. A tough anti-terror law was approved by the government, defining acts as vague as "defaming the state's reputation" as terrorism.
More than 200 protesters, including women and children, were detained in Buraydah, north of the capital Riyadh, for demanding the release of imprisoned relatives. A Saudi man was sentenced this week to 30 years in prison for his role in leading protests by the country's Shiite minority, who complain of discrimination. At least five women were detained for several hours for flouting a driving ban, and a Saudi male writer supportive of their push was detained for almost two weeks.
Abdulaziz Alhussan, the rights lawyer who fled to the United States, warned that if the monarchy doesn't address calls for change, the demands could escalate and destabilize the country.
"If we wait another seven to 10 years, we will be in a more dangerous situation than Egypt and Syria," he told The Associated Press. "What we need to do is fix it before it's too late."
He said that while 2013 was bad for activists — "one of the worst years we are facing in Saudi Arabia" — it was ultimately "much worse for the government" because Saudis are more informed and aware of the needs for better governance.
"The government has no option but to reconcile with its own people," he said. "They do not want to overthrow the royal family. They are saying we need reform where human rights are respected and where there is accountability and transparency within government."
Saudi Arabia is one of the world's last absolute monarchies. All decisions are centered in the hands of 89-year-old King Abdullah, who has the sole power to ratify new laws. There is no parliament. There is little written law, and judges — implementing the country's strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam — have broad leeway to impose verdicts and sentences. A Specialized Criminal Court created in 2008 for terrorism cases has tried reformers and activists. Offences such as "disobeying the ruler" can result in years in prison.
More than a half dozen Saudi rights activists interviewed by the AP say they seek a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and want accountability in government, particularly to know how the vast oil revenues are spent.
When Saudis do speak out, they say their phone calls and emails are monitored and that they are tailed by security officers. The kingdom has aggressively monitored social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, where jokes about the aging monarchy are rife and anger over corruption, poverty and unemployment is palpable.
One female activist, who was recently put under house arrest and banned from Twitter for her criticism of the government, said people are terrified of the "security state."
"Everyone expects a revolution in the kingdom. We don't want one because the people are divided. The only thing uniting us is repression," she said. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution against her family, saying security officials warned that her parents could face arrest for her activism.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights over the weekend voiced its "deep concern" about what it said was the "intimidation and prosecution of individuals in Saudi Arabia for exercising certain fundamental freedoms."
Human Rights Watch released a report last week saying Saudi authorities have redoubled their harassment of activists since early 2011.
Repeated calls by the AP to Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry spokesman for comment were not answered.
The rights group HASEM was formed in 2009 to challenge detentions of people held for years without trial or kept imprisoned far beyond their sentences. Since then, it became one of the most vocal organizations in the kingdom, though it was never given a license to operate. There are two licensed human rights bodies in the kingdom but unions and most independent civil society groups are not allowed to operate.
Two years ago, HASEM and other rights advocates were strong enough to pressure the government to shelve a version of the anti-terror law that was recently approved by Cabinet. Last year, HASEM challenged a law that says citizens must pledge allegiance to the king in accordance with Islam and the Quran. HASEM posted an online petition arguing that Islam requires rulers to be responsible toward their people, "rather than people being the ruler's livestock and property, inherited continuously by the ruler's family."
Now around a dozen members of HASEM are in detention, on trial or under investigation.
One of them, 23-year-old Umar al-Saeed, was sentenced in December to four years in prison and 300 lashes. The verdict came in a secret, surprise session of his trial without his defense lawyers or family present, and the court has not announced what charges he was convicted on, al-Saeed's lawyer Abdullah al-Shubaily said.
Separately, two founding members of HASEM and icons of the reform movement, Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, were sentenced to between 10-11 years in prison, with a five- to 10-year ban on travel after that on charges of breaking allegiance with the ruler, inciting disorder, disseminating false information to foreign groups and founding an unlicensed organization.
Rights lawer Alhussan, who represented the two, was later interrogated by authorities and accused of trying to damage the reputation of the prison system because of tweets critical of his clients' treatment. Shortly after, he left to the United States as a visiting scholar at Indiana University.
Al-Shubaily, the lawyer who represented al-Saeed, has also been questioned over his own participation in HASEM.
"I am ready for jail. I am ready to be lashed. I am ready for everything," he said. "It's hard to see our grandfathers die to unite the country and then for it to be heading into the unknown."