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The Saudi Interior Ministry should immediately and unconditionally release Matrook al-Faleh, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading human rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 19, Saudi secret police apprehended Dr. al-Faleh on the premises of King Saud University in Riyadh, where he teaches political science. His arrest took place two days after he publicly criticized conditions in a prison where two other Saudi human rights activists are serving jail terms.

“Saudi Arabia’s arrest of Matrook al-Faleh confirms that human rights advocacy in that country remains a risky business,” said Joe Stork, deputy director at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “By suppressing peaceful dissent, Saudi Arabia only stands to gain further notoriety as an abuser of human rights.”

Dr. Matrook al-Faleh went to the university on the morning of May 19, and friends last saw him there around noon. Al-Faleh’s wife, Jamila al-‘Uqla, told Human Rights Watch that she found his car in the university parking lot. When she called his mobile phone it rang but no one answered. A Saudi human rights activist informed Human Rights Watch that, at around midnight, al-Faleh’s family received confirmation that the secret police had arrested al-Faleh.

Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s enquiries about Dr. Matrook al-Faleh on May 19 or May 20. Al-Faleh’s family has not been given indication of the reasons for his detention or whether he has been charged with any crime.

On May 17, two days before his arrest, al-Faleh emailed a statement to human rights activists and journalists concerning visiting procedures and detention conditions at Buraida General Prison. Al-Faleh’s fellow activists, the brothers Abdullah al-Hamid and ‘Isa al-Hamid, are serving prison sentences at Buraida General Prison for expressing support for a demonstration that took place in front of Buraida’s secret police prison by wives and relatives of long-term detainees held there without charge or trial.

Al-Faleh’s May 17 statement described the laborious visiting procedures and likened the visiting area to “a chicken coop.” He wrote that the al-Hamids described the prison as overcrowded, dirty, and lacking health care. An ear infection causing Abdullah al-Hamid’s ear to bleed had gone untreated because of the absence of a doctor.

Human Rights Watch has independent information regarding unhygienic conditions, overcrowding, and substandard medical services in Saudi prisons which contributes to the deaths of inmates, especially in Jeddah’s Buraiman prison and the deportation center there. Prison administrations have made no discernible efforts since Human Rights Watch first raised concerns in May 2007.

Al-Faleh’s statement was later reproduced on, a Saudi discussion website. One of the editors of the website told Human Rights Watch that on May 19 persons in Saudi Arabia could not view the site.

“It is outrageous that the Ministry of Interior arbitrarily arrests Dr. al-Faleh rather than addressing the inhumane conditions he documented,” Stork said.

Human Rights Watch said that Saudi Arabia’s governmental Human Rights Commission and the nongovernmental National Society for Human Rights should forcefully demand al-Faleh’s release and an end to official persecution of human rights activists.

Two days after his visit to Saudi Arabia on May 16, US President George W. Bush, in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, called on Arab leaders to “release their prisoners of conscience.” Saudi authorities in March 2004 had arrested Matrook al-Faleh, Abdullah al-Hamid, and Ali al-Dumaini, who runs the menber-alhewar website, for circulating a petition to then-Crown Prince Abdullah calling for a constitution guaranteeing basic human rights. A court sentenced the three to six, seven, and nine years in prison respectively, but King Abdullah pardoned them in August 2005.

In May 2006, Saudi Arabia was elected to a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council after pledging its “confirmed commitment with the defense, protection and promotion of human right [sic],” including by a “policy of active cooperation with international [human rights] organization.”

Article 32 of the Arab Charter of Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia signed in 2004, and which the Shura Council (appointed parliament) ratified in March 2008, guarantees the freedom of opinion and expression and “the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.” The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998 specifies that everyone has the right “[t]o communicate with non-governmental or intergovernmental organizations” (Article 5), and “freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Article 6).

Saudi authorities in December 2007 arrested blogger Fu’ad Farhan after he called for the release of a group of detained peaceful reform activists. Authorities released Farhan in April 2008 after four months of solitary confinement, but the reformers remain in detention. In May 2008, a critic of the Saudi religious police, Ra’if Badawi, fled the kingdom after receiving death threats and being charged by the Saudi Arabia’s prosecution department in Jeddah with “insulting Islam.”

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