By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A U.N. Security Council committee is removing Saudi dissident Saad al-Faqih from the United Nations' al Qaeda sanctions list, despite strong objections from Saudi Arabia, a U.N. diplomat said on Sunday.
The London-based Faqih was added to the list in December 2004, days after the U.S. Treasury Department hit him with sanctions for suspected links to the late Osama bin Laden's militant network, which was responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
The decision to de-list Faqih came after the 15-nation Security Council's sanctions committee failed to reach a consensus to override the U.N.'s al Qaeda-sanctions-list ombudsman, who had recommended removing Faqih from the U.N. blacklist, the diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Reuters reported on Saturday that the removal of Faqih from the U.N. blacklist appeared imminent. One envoy said Faqih's de-listing was expected to take effect at midnight New York time (12.00 a.m. EDT).
Faqih told Reuters in London it had been "a laborious battle" to get him off the list.
"All that has happened in the last eight years is that an innocent, peaceful activist, acting within the law, has been a victim of a conspiracy by tyrants in the Gulf supported by superpowers," he said.
Formerly a professor of medicine at a Saudi university, the exiled dissident heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia and has insisted that he and his group are committed to peace. Faqih is an outspoken critic of the Saudi leadership.
Prior to Faqih's de-listing, there were 252 individuals and 69 entities or groups on the U.N.'s al Qaeda sanctions list, including Faqih. All individuals on the list are subject to asset freezes and an international travel ban.
Britain, Faqih's current host, was one of only four council members that supported the recommendation of the al Qaeda sanctions committee ombudsman, Kimberly Prost of Canada, that Faqih be taken off the blacklist, despite strong objections from Riyadh, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
Council diplomats said The United States was among the 11 council members that supported the Saudis and opposed taking Faqih off the blacklist. A spokesman for Saudi Arabia's U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.
The other three countries supporting Prost's recommendation, the envoys said, were Germany, South Africa and Guatemala.
"The Saudis were pushing really hard against the idea of de-listing al-Faqih," a diplomat told Reuters. "I don't think the decision in London (to support de-listing) was an easy one."
A spokesman for the British mission to the United Nations declined to comment because he said the committee's proceedings are confidential.
The al Qaeda sanctions list has been criticized by human rights advocates, who say it has proven virtually impossible to be removed from it.
Last year, the Security Council expanded the powers of the ombudsman, giving the office the authority to recommend removal of people from the blacklist. Council members must agree unanimously to override the recommendation or call for the council to take up the issue.
When the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted Faqih in 2004, it said he had "maintained associations with the al Qaeda network since the mid-1990s, including an individual associated with the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings."
Earlier this year, Faqih criticized Saudi Arabia's rulers in an editorial in Britain's Guardian newspaper and predicted that the Arab Spring uprising, which began last year in the Middle East and North Africa, would reach Saudi Arabia.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean in London; editing by Christopher Wilson and David Brunnstrom)