Saudis To Try Al-Qaida Suspects

Nearly a thousand Saudi men are set to stand trial on charges of belonging to al-Qaida. The men are accused of involvement in a string of terrorist attacks in the kingdom earlier this decade.

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In Saudi Arabia, an extraordinary trial is in the works. Nearly a thousand men face terrorism charges for a string of attacks inside the kingdom. Authorities say the men are part of the group called al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. The trials will be a first in the county that was home to most of the 9/11 hijackers. Kelly McEvers reports from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

KELLY MCEVERS: The men are accused of being involved in at least 30 attacks from 2003 to 2006. Those attacks included bombings at residential compounds where westerners live, and at a US Consulate building. Militants also shot and kidnapped westerners in broad daylight. The grizzly beheading of one victim was caught on video. In all, 90 civilians and 74 Saudi policemen were killed over the three-year period. Hundreds more were injured.

Major OMAR AL-KHATANI(ph) (Saudi Police): This one is Aldo Oseri(ph). He used to work in the same building where I work, and he's one of the people who is dead.

MCEVERS: Police Major Omar Al-Khatani is pointing to a mural painted on a wall outside the National Police headquarters. It shows faces of policemen who died in a militant attack.

Major AL-KHATANI: It was very big explosions. I am about three kilos, three kilos from the explosions, and then I heard it very well, very well. It seems like that I'm next to it.

MCEVERS: Now, 991 suspects are set to stand trial for their roles in these attacks. Ministry of Interior spokesman Monsour al-Turki says the suspects belong to seven separate cells of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. MONSOUR AL-TURKI (Spokesman, Ministry of Interior): We consider them hardcore people. There are people who worked in preparation of car bombs, there are people who worked in making fraud documents. They were very much involved in the al-Qaeda organization. They knew they were part of it, and they wanted to be a part of it.

MCEVERS: Al-Turki says the group also includes high profiled religious leaders who condoned violence. Although trials in Saudi Arabia are usually closed to the public, Al-Turki says there's a good chance these will be open. That's because the government is doing its best to convince the Saudi people, most of whom follow a strict version of Islam, that these suspects are not real Muslims. The government is not doing this to please the west, Al-Turki says.

Mr. AL-TURKI: We do this because we know if we don't do it this way, then we're not sure that we can keep our country, we can keep our economy, we can keep our faith and we can still be one community as we are now.

MCEVERS: Critic says the Saudi leadership was slow to acknowledge the terrorist threat here. Kristoff Wilkie, of New York-based Human Rights Watch says now it's important that the upcoming trials are perceived as fair and lawful. Not just the whim of the royal family.

Mr. KRISTOFF WILKIE (Human Rights Watch): What is extremely important is to show that crimes were committed, that this is not an ideological war, that the dividing line is that between what is allowed and what is forbidden, and not between various ideologies.

MCEVERS: The trials of al-Qaeda suspects could begin as early as next month. Wilkie says the next challenge for Saudi authorities is to try another even larger group of suspected militants who are being held in what he calls the black hole of the Saudi penal system.

Mr. WILKIE: Those who are involved in the jihad in Iraq, those who want to go to Iraq, facilitate going, financing, recruiting networks et cetera.

MCEVERS: Wilkie says that group includes hundreds maybe even thousands of Saudi men. For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Riyadh.

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