(New York) - Saudi Arabia's domestic intelligence service should immediately release Munir Jassas, an advocate for Shia rights, who has been detained without charge for over five months, Human Rights Watch said today.
"Silencing Shia advocates will do nothing to hide the Saudi government's record of harassment and discrimination against the group," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "But jailing a peaceful critic for months on end shows just how far Saudi officials will go to avoid criticism."
Saudi intelligence officers arrested Jassas on November 7, 2009, and held him in solitary confinement for four months. The arrest came two months after the intelligence service summoned him and ordered him to write a pledge to stop his internet writings criticizing the government's treatment of Shias.
Officials allowed Jassas's wife to visit him two months after his arrest, but only so she could obtain his written consent for her to undergo an urgent medical procedure. Under Saudi's guardianship system, women cannot make vital decisions for themselves, including on health care, but must obtain the consent of a male "guardian". She was allowed to visit him again two months later, shortly after he had been moved to a group cell with other inmates. He told her that the arrest was a result of his internet writings, she told Human Rights Watch. The authorities have not yet charged Jassas with any crime.
Jassas is listed as a "general supervisor" for the Tahara online discussion forum, although his name also appears as the author of comments posted on other web forums. Human Rights Watch reviewed postings in the name of Jassas since February 2009.
The postings urged peaceful action to support his fellow Shias, especially following incidents in February2009, when Saudi religious police attacked Shia pilgrims in Medina, and March 2009, when they arrested peaceful Shia solidarity protesters in ‘Awwamiyya in the Eastern Province. These incidents set off the worst sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunnis in Saudi Arabia in years, and the authorities arrested scores of Shia ptotesters.
On February 24, 2009, just after the attack on Shia pilgrims, Jassas urged Shias to take up the cause of their attacked brethren, writing on Tahara that "oppression does not slaughter you. Oppression remains if we are silent about it ... but it fades in the face of steadfastness."
Following the arrest of Shia solidarity protestors, on March 7, Jassas wrote about the "need to continue peaceful and correct media mobilization... to release the prisoners as soon as possible." On March 8, he suggested conducting "a law-abiding mourning procession inside prison."
In a Friday sermon on March 13, 2009, an outspoken Shia cleric, Shaikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr of ‘Awwamiyya, suggested that Saudi Shia might one day secede from the kingdom, saying that "Our dignity is more precious than the unity of the land." The authorities consequently sought to arrest al-Nimr, who went into hiding, where he remains. In a May 5, 2009 posting, Jassas defended al-Nimr, criticizing Saudi authorities for reacting to the sermon by giving the green light to Saudi Wahhabi clerics to declare Shia unbelievers.
Saudi clerics on the government payroll have repeatedly made statements deprecating Shia, who constitute 10 to 15 percent of the kingdom's population, without any countervailing action by the government. In a sermon on January 1, 2010, Shaikh Muhammad al-‘Arifi, the government-paid imam of the Buradi mosque in Riyadh, called Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, considered the highest religious authority for many Saudi Shia, an "obscene, irreligious atheist."
"While al-‘Arifi is entitled to his freedom of speech, just like the Shia activists, the government has to ensure that members of all religious groups, including minority groups, can live and practice their religion freely," Whitson said. "The government should not be condoning words that might amount to incitement to violence."
Human Rights Watch in February criticized Kuwait's decision to bar al-‘Arifi from entry solely on the basis of his anti-Shia opinions.
On May 30, 2008, 22 prominent Saudi Wahhabi clerics, including Abdullah bin Jibrin, Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, and Nasir al-'Umar, known for their hardline opinions, issued a statement calling the "Shia sect an evil among the sects of the Islamic nation, and the greatest enemy and deceivers of the Sunni people. " Of the 22 signatories, 11 are current government officials and 6 are former government officials. Human Rights Watch documented systematic discrimination against Saudi Shia in a September 2009 report, "Denied Dignity. "
Rather than condemning hostility toward Shia, the authorities silence Shia critics of the government. On June 22, 2008, authorities arrested Shia cleric Shaikh Tawfiq al-'Amir, after his June 11 sermon in Hofuf criticized the May 30- Wahhabi cleric statement. criticizing
"Saudi officials time and again stand silent in the face of open hostility to the religion of a minority of citizens, while jailing those who condemn the hatred directed at their community," Whitson said. "King Abdullah's efforts to promote religious tolerance abroad have borne no fruit at home."
In July 2008, King Abdullah an interfaith dialogue in Madrid with subsequent meetings in New York and Geneva.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of All Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities, agreed on by the UN General Assembly in 1992 says that states "shall take measures to create favourable conditions to enable persons belonging to minorities to express their characteristics and to develop their culture, language, religion, traditions and customs."