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Arrests at peaceful protests on the rise

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, March 27, 2011 - Saudi Arabia should immediately release protesters and critics arrested and detained without charge over the past weeks, Human Rights Watch said today. More than 100 people have been arrested in the Qatif district, and about 45 in the al-Ahsa' district, both Shia population centers in the kingdom's Eastern Province. A smaller number of people have been arrested in Riyadh and Qasim governorates.

The arrests violate the rights to peaceful expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

"While King Abdullah announces financial gifts to Saudi citizens, his police arrest those who want more meaningful change," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The scale of arrests has risen dramatically over the past two weeks."

Saudis have demanded political change in the wake of the popular uprisings that toppled the leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, but the government has not responded to the demands for a constitution and elected parliament, or the release of political prisoners. Instead, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz on February 23, 2011, announced a $35 billion package of financial assistance to the unemployed and support for first-time home buyers. On March 18, he announced new assistance totalling $96 billion for similar measures, in addition to creating 60,000 new security sector jobs.

In early March, the Interior Ministry and the Council of Senior Religious Scholars publicly reiterated the government's ban on protests ahead of demonstrations for a Saudi "Day of Rage" that had been called for March 11. That day, hundreds of people demonstrated in the streets of Qatif and al-Ahsa', calling for the release of nine Shia men held for over 13 years without charge or trial, and dozens of people demonstrated in Riyadh, calling for the release of thousands of Sunni security suspects held without charge or trial, some for over seven years. Similar protests took place in the Eastern Province on March 17 and 18, and in Riyadh on March 20.

In front of the Interior Ministry in Riyadh, police detained Bahiya, Dana, and Badria al-Rashudi and held them for a day, two fellow activists told Human Rights Watch. They are the daughters of Sulaiman al-Rashudi, a 76-year-old former judge and reform advocate arrested in February 2007 and held for years before prosecutors charged him recently, a lawyer for another man arrested and imprisoned with al-Rashudi told Human Rights Watch. Al-Rashudi is prohibited from contacting his lawyers. The daughters were there to demand their father's release.

On the night of March 20, the authorities arrested Muhammad al-Bajadi at his home in Qasim province, a statement from the Saudi Association for Political and Civil Rights said and another activist confirmed. Al-Bajadi, a member of the association, which the government has refused an operating license, had supported families demonstrating at the Interior Ministry to demand their relatives' release. Mubarak bin Zu'air, a lawyer whose father, Sa'id bin Zu'air, and brother, Sa'd bin Sa'id bin Zu'air, have long been detained without charge by the country's domestic intelligence service, was also arrested, as was Abd al-'Aziz al-Qaffari, demonstrating for the release of his brother.

Professor Abd al-Karim al-Khadr told Human Rights Watch that on March 20 he went from his home in Qasim province to the Interior Ministry in Riyadh to inquire about his son, Thamir, a rights activist detained without charge since March 2010. Police there arrested his other son, 17-year-old Jihad. Al-Khadr did not hear from Jihad until early on March 25, when he briefly saw him at Riyadh's Ma'dhar Police Station. Officers there informed him that their superiors had prohibited communication with those arrested.

Saudi domestic intelligence forces, the Interior Ministry's Directorate for General Investigations (mabahith), which runs its own prisons, also arrested two Syrian nationals over the past month, apparently for their peaceful criticism of political conditions. On February 26, the mabahith arrested Bashar Mihriz 'Abud at his office in Riyadh, where he recently had started work as an editor of Mobily, the magazine of the mobile phone carrier of the same name, a Jeddah-based human rights activist told Human Rights Watch.

'Abud had worked for eight years as an editor for the prominent daily newspaper Okaz and continued to write for the publication. His most recent article, written shortly before his arrest, detailed the life of the Syrian filmmaker Umar Amiralay, who died on February 5. Amiralay had been a vocal activist for political change in Syria, signing petitions in 2000 and 2005 calling for an end to emergency rule and the release of political prisoners there. 'Abud's wife, now in Syria, told Human Rights Watch that she had received a call from her husband on March 19, saying he was in al-Ha'ir prison south of Riyadh, and that his interrogators had finished their investigation about his article.

On March 21, also in Riyadh, the mabahith arrested Dr. Ala' al-Rashi, owner of the Cultural Critic House, a Syrian publishing company. Saudi Arabia's Information and Culture Ministry had invited al-Rashi to this year's international book fair in February, where he had exhibited his publishing house's books. Professor Abdullah al-Hamid, a Saudi political reformer whose books are banned in Saudi Arabia, told Human Rights Watch that his books on Islamic norms and constitutional rule had been exhibited by al-Rashi at the book fair. Al-Rashi's wife confirmed this account to Human Rights Watch and said that government censors confiscated these books at the book fair, but did not indicate there would be further legal action against al-Rashi.

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"By arresting its peaceful critics and refusing any talk of political reform, Saudi rulers are fast becoming the last hold-outs in a region yearning for democratic change," Wilcke said.
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