Saudi authorities in the northern city of Ha’il should immediately release Rabbah al-Quwai’i, a journalist for Riyadh’s al-Shams newspaper, Human Rights Watch said today. The group also urged Turki al-Sudairy, Saudi Arabia’s minister for human rights, to open a public inquiry into the role of the country’s security and intelligence services in al-Quwai’i’s arrest.
On April 3, Saudi Arabia’s domestic intelligence agency, (al-mabahith), arrested al-Quwai’i, 24, on charges of “doubting the [Islamic] creed” and for “harboring destructive thoughts.” Al-Quwai’i had been a frequent contributor to Internet discussion forums in Ha’il and was the editor for the media section of the Saudi Internet forum “A Body of Culture,” (Jasad al-Thaqafa). His writings questioned prevalent religious doctrine and in particular criticized thinking that in his view contributed to acts of violence in Saudi Arabia by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Al-Quwai’i’s arrest added a new twist to his trouble with the mabahith, which had failed to investigate death threats he received in November 2005 because of his Internet writings. International human rights law protects free speech, including criticism of religion and society, but bans incitement to violence, such as death threats.
“Saudi security forces apparently believe they are there to abuse citizens like Rabbah al-Quwai’i rather than to protect them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
Al-Quwai’i told Human Rights Watch in February 2006 that he had received numerous death threats in response to his Internet writings, which he signs with his real name. He said he reported these threats to the mabahith, but that they took no action. In November 2005 the governor of Ha’il Province, Prince Sa`ud bin `Abd al-Muhsin bin `Abd al-`Aziz, ordered the mabahith to open an investigation after public pressure from an article in al-Watan newspaper reported that unknown assailants had smashed al-Quwai’i’s car and pinned a note to it saying “next time, it’s you.”
Two other prominent liberal Saudi journalists told Human Rights Watch in February that they had also received threats, including death threats, which they had reported to law enforcement without result.
On April 3, the mabahith lured al-Quwai’i back from Riyadh to his hometown of Ha’il on the pretext of filling out paperwork related to the investigation. They then arrested him on a warrant issued by the Prosecution and Investigation Commission and transferred him to the Criminal Investigation branch of the police 24 hours later, his lawyer, `Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, told Human Rights Watch.
Al-Quwai’i managed to call an acquaintance from his holding cell at the Central Police Station on April 4. The acquaintance told Human Rights Watch that investigators had informed al-Quwai’i “they were investigating his creed as expressed in his writings because they became suspicious that only he had been targeted for death threats in Ha’il.” According to the acquaintance, investigators taunted al-Quwai’i with questions like, “Do you know at what time morning prayers are?” and “How can you say you’re a Muslim?”
On April 9, the head of the Prosecution and Investigation Commission in Ha’il refused to grant al-Lahim access to his client or to disclose the charges, the lawyer told Human Rights Watch.
It is unclear whether private citizens or the state initiated the charges against al-Quwai’i. In two previous cases, the state prosecution joined private suits in court cases against two high school teachers for “mocking religion".
In Saudi Arabia, private citizens can apparently file suits against another person when they believe that person has in some way infringed religious norms. However, the prosecutor can only hold a suspect without a judicial order for “major crimes” or other conditions, such as flight risk, listed in Articles 9-11 of Saudi Arabia’s Regulation of the Sources of Detention and Temporary Confinement and Preventative Detention, attached to the Law on Imprisonment and Detention. Infringing religious norms does not fall under the list of “major crimes.”
In a similar case, on March 10 security forces arrested Dr. Muhsin al-`Awaji and closed the Internet site he supervises, www.alwasatyah.com. On March 4, al-`Awaji had published an article on his website in which he criticized Saudi Minister of Labor Dr. Ghazi al-Qusaibi, and what he described as the liberal influence behind the scenes on King Abdullah. The authorities released al-`Awaji, who had spent several years in prison in the 1990s, after a few days.
Al-Quwai’i worked as a local correspondent for the daily Okaz in Ha’il before moving to Riyadh in late 2005 to work with al-Shams newspaper, Saudi Arabia’s first tabloid. He told Human Rights Watch that the move was partly motivated by the threats he had received in Ha’il and the inaction of local law enforcement.
After moving to Riyadh, al-Quwai’i said, he largely stopped actively participating in a number of online discussion forums, where his critiques over the past four years of Saudi thinking and of al-Qa’ida in the Peninsula frequently provoked direct threats to him. For example, al-Quwai’i told Human Rights Watch that he had written on the phenomenon of shaikhs leading groups of teenagers to car parks on the outskirts of the city to participate “in ritualistic burning of musical instruments and books,” which they considered contrary to the prevailing Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
Al-Sudairy is the chair of the governmental Commission on Human Rights established in September 2005. According to article 5.1 of its charter, the commission is charged with “ensuring that the concerned governmental agencies apply the current laws and regulations relating to human rights, and uncovering transgressions which constitute human rights violations and that are contrary the laws in effect in the kingdom, and taking the necessary legal procedures in this regard.”