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The Saudi domestic intelligence forces arrested two of the country’s most prominent reformers, casting doubt on the government’s promises of reform, Human Rights Watch said today. Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid, a lawyer, and his brother `Isa al-Hamid, were arrested on July 19, 2007, as were a group of five women who had been peacefully demonstrating for the speedy trial of their relatives, one of them a client of al-Hamid.

Saudi intelligence forces (mabahith) arrested Rima al-Juraish at her home in Buraida, capital of Qasim province, for having participated in a July 16 demonstration in front of the intelligence prison, where she and other women demanded that their relatives be brought to trial. The mabahith has held her husband, Muhammad al-Hamili, without charge or trial for between two and three years. When al-Hamili’s lawyer, Abdullah al-Hamid, demanded to see an arrest warrant, the mabahith also arrested him and his brother `Isa. They also arrested four other women who had demonstrated with al-Juraish: Manal al-`Umairini, Badriya al-`Umairini, Afrah al-Fuhaid, and Ashwaq al-Fuhaid.

“It’s deeply disturbing that Saudi intelligence forces feel free to arrest a lawyer for defending his client’s rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director. “The security forces should be protecting people’s rights to peaceful protest, not whisking them off to jail.”

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of detainees in mabahith detention without charge or trial in excess of three years, even though Saudi law stipulates that detainees must be brought to trial or released within six months of their arrest.

Saudi Arabia prohibits public demonstrations, although there is no explicit legal basis for such a prohibition. In August and September 2006, the mabahith twice detained Wajeha al-Huwaider for staging a one-woman demonstration for women’s rights. In October 2004, Saudi security forces detained hundreds of peaceful protestors in Riyadh, Jeddah and other cities, who demanded reform.

“Rima al-Juraish and her fellow protesters have the right to demonstrate peacefully,” Whitson said. “And their relatives in jail have the right to be charged with an offense and tried or be released.”

Abdullah al-Hamid spent 17 months in prison after he and two other reformers were arrested in March 2004 for writing a petition to then-Crown Prince Abdullah that called on the government to enact reforms with constitutionally guaranteed human rights.

A court sentenced him to seven years in prison, but Abdullah pardoned the three reformers upon acceding to the throne in August 2005. The government had also arrested their lawyer, `Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, and supporters of the three detained reformers, including `Isa al-Hamid and Muhanna al-Falih, without charge but freed them eventually. In February 2007, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to King Abdullah urging him to lift the arbitrary bans on foreign travel that the Ministry of Interior imposed on these peaceful reformers and their supporters after their release.

Prior to the latest arrests, the government had also imprisoned others demanding fair trials and an end to arbitrary arrests in Saudi Arabia. On February 2, the Saudi mabahith arrested another group of political and rights reformers in Jeddah, including former Judge Sulaiman al-Rashudi, who intended to sue the Ministry of Interior over its failure to charge and speedily try detainees in mabahith prisons. The government has not charged al-Rashudi and his fellow detainees who remain in mabahith detention, a relative told Human Rights Watch. Under Saudi law, it has until July 29, 2007 to do so, before it must legally release them.

Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to immediately release the men and women arrested in Buraida on July 19 and to release or formally charge those arrested on February 2. Furthermore, the government should ensure that law enforcement officers do not arrest persons for exercising their fundamental rights to peacefully demonstrate or express their opinion. It should also guarantee that lawyers for mabahith detainees have the opportunity to effectively challenge the lawfulness of their clients’ detention in a court of law.

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