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Renewed protests defy ban; reform advocates arrested

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Beirut, December 30, 2011 - Saudi reform advocates have staged several protests since mid-December, 2011, despite a categorical ban on protests issued last March, Human Rights Watch said today. In Riyadh, Buraida, and Qatif, security forces immediately arrested the protesters, who were peacefully protesting the detention without trial of hundreds of people held for long periods in intelligence prisons.

Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry should immediately release scores of detained and convicted peaceful advocates of reform, Human Rights Watch said.

“Saudi Arabia is not immune to the Arab Spring,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The basic human right to protest peacefully is all the more important in a place like Saudi Arabia, where there are almost no other means of participating in public affairs.”

Since the Arab protest movements began in January, hundreds of Saudis have voiced specific grievances or called for political reform. The Saudi government banned all public protests on March 5, after public protests in the capital, Riyadh, and in Qatif in the Eastern Province. However, the Qatif protests have continued and Riyadh protests began again in mid-December.

On December 23, Saudi security forces arrested about 30 women and 30 men who participated in a silent protest in Riyadh, a participant told Human Rights Watch. The protesters called in particular for the release of Dr. Yusuf al-Ahmad, a controversial cleric arrested in July after he tweeted support for the relatives of long-term detainees. By December 28, all but four or five of those arrested had been released.

On December 16, more than 100 women and several dozen men demonstrated in Riyadh and in Buraida, capital of Qasim Province north of Riyadh, calling for long-term detainees to be released or brought to trial. In Riyadh, security forces arrested about 34 men and several women from al-Rajhi mosque after one man shouted “Freedom for the detainees,” a participant told Human Rights Watch. Security forces also briefly detained dozens at Buraida's al-Rajhi mosque. Most of the women and at least 13 men arrested in Riyadh were released by December 23. Several men remain in detention, activists told Human Rights Watch.

Between November 20 and 23, security forces shot dead four people who were participating in demonstrations in Qatif and al-'Awwamiyya. The circumstances are unclear, but on at least one past occasion the security forces have used unnecessary lethal force against protesters, in violation of international law. The government announced an investigation on November 24, but no details have been made public.

The Interior Ministry's March 5 statement prohibiting public protest stated that “The kingdom categorically prohibits all forms of demonstrations, marches, or protests, and calls for them, because that contradicts the principles of the Islamic Sharia, the values and traditions of Saudi society, and results in disturbing public order and harming public and private interests.” The next day, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the highest body for interpretation of Islamic law, endorsed this position.

Because Saudi Arabia has no written criminal law, defining the offenses of participating in or calling for a public protest is within the discretion of the judge, who also decides what, if any, punishment should apply.

Saudi Arabia is a state party to the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which states in article 24 that “every citizen has the right. . . to freely pursue a political activity [and] to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.”

On December 14, a group of political reformers best known for their activism in 2003 and 2004 released a statement, “Twenty Recommendations for Doubling the Success of Demonstrations.” The document offers practical advice about organizing and says that, “demonstrations are among the most powerful means of holy struggle,” which the authors said in the document is aimed at reforming the monarchy, not toppling it.

On December 12, more than 100 women who are relatives of long-term detainees had signed a declaration stating that, “After today, no prison can terrorize us and no false religious rulings deter us.” One activist told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have not arrested the authors or signers of these statements “because it is so public they think the price is too high.”

Saudi courts are currently trying three activists who were peacefully participating in or calling for demonstrations. In July, a court sentenced five protesters to one year in prison merely for participating in a demonstration.

In November, Egypt's al-Azhar, one of Sunni Islam's most renowned institutions of learning and interpretation, addressing the issue of peaceful demonstrations, said that: “Peaceful national opposition movements are truly among human rights in Islam that all international treaties have affirmed, and they are the duty of citizens for reforming their society and strengthening their rulers, who, together with all those in power, are obliged to respond to them without inconsistency or intransigence.”

In addition to the kingdom's ban on public protest, the government routinely represses expression critical of the government. The three activists currently on trial also face charges of distorting the reputation of the kingdom abroad and causing divisions among people, people familiar with the trials told Human Rights Watch. In January, the kingdom issued a law subjecting virtually all online expression to the kingdom's restrictive Press and Publications Law, and in April it tightened that law further to criminalize, among other things, harming “the reputation [or] dignity” of religious officials.

The Ministry of Culture and Information holds tribunals for violations of the Press and Publication Law. In September, this ministry announced an investigation into a local newspaper for writing about a court sentencing a woman to 10 strokes of the cane for driving a car. The ministry charged the paper with “causing chitchat among citizens.” In October, the minister of higher education sent a secret cable instructing university professors not to criticize government policies.

“In 2011, the Saudi government shed all pretense of reform and become the kingdom of silence,” Wilcke said.

Click here for further information on recent government violations of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly
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