U.S. in final bid to keep Saudis off list of religious rights violators

Thursday, October 9, 2003

The Bush administration has made what officials termed a last-ditch effort to keep Saudi Arabia off a list of leading religious rights violators, a move that could prompt an arms embargo on the kingdom.

A senior State Department official was sent to Riyad earlier this week to discuss a draft of a report that detailed major Saudi violations of religious rights. The State Department envoy was said to have sought assurances from the Saudi government that it would change its policy.

The State Department was to have relayed its annual International Religious Freedom Report to Congress by Sept. 30. The report was meant to have addressed demands by a panel mandated by Congress to deem Saudi Arabia as a "country of particular concern," a term reserved for a leading violator of religious freedom.

Officials now said the State Department report will be delayed until at least mid-November. They cited difficulties in obtaining information as well as bureaucratic delays.

The department has listed Saudi Arabia a country of concern, but refused to adopt the harsher definition by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In its May 2003 report, the commission reported on abuses by the 4,500-member Saudi police against U.S. and other foreigners in the kingdom. The report also detailed the Saudi export of Wahabi ideology and expressed concern that this was linked to the financing of Islamic insurgency groups deemed as terrorist.

"The U.S. government should ensure that any existing restrictions on the religious practice of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel be lifted permanently and that American citizens visiting or residing in Saudi Arabia have full access to embassy and consular services under current U.S. law, particularly any American citizens seeking refuge or assistance," the commission's report said.

On Thursday, John Hanford, the State Department ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, was scheduled to complete his visit to Riyad. Hanford, who a year ago said the State Department must consider designating Saudi Arabia a country of particular concern, met Saudi officials to discuss Riyad's policy toward the religious practices of non-Muslims in the kingdom. For three years, the State Department dismissed recommendations by the U.S. commission to deem Saudi Arabia as a country of particulary concern.

"The purpose of his trip is not merely to collect information but to continue to discuss these policy issues, to continue to encourage more action to open up religious freedom in Saudi Arabia," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Wednesday.

Officials said the State Department would not issue a designation of Saudi Arabia or any other country until the spring of 2004. Designating Saudi Arabia a country of particular concern could spark a series of sanctions against the kingdom, including an embargo of U.S. weapons. Although weapons purchases have decreased over the last two years, Saudi Arabia remains one of the largest consumers of U.S. arms.

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