(New York) - Saudi authorities should immediately release five men who sought official recognition in early February of what would be the country's first political party, Human Rights Watch said today. The five appear to have been detained solely for trying to create a party whose professed aims included greater democracy and protection for human rights.
Saudis close to the party's founders told Human Rights Watch that the domestic intelligence service, the General Directorate for Investigations, arrested them on the night of February 16, 2011, one week after they submitted their request for recognition of the Islamic Nation Party as a political party to the Royal Court and the Shura Council, an unelected council with some parliamentary functions. Saudi Arabia does not allow political parties.
"Saudi suppression of political activity is as swift as it is total," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "At a time when people throughout the Arab world are out on the street seeking greater freedom, the Saudi secret police seem determined to nip any similar demands in the bud."
A statement posted on the party's website on February 17 said that authorities arrested Dr. Ahmad bin Sa'd al-Ghamidi, Professor Sa'ud al-Dughaithir, Shaikh Abd al-‘Aziz al-Wuhaibi, Shaikh Muhammad bin Husain al-Qahtani, Professor Muhammad bin Nasir al-Ghamidi, Walid al-Majid, and Professor Abd al-Karim al-Khadhar on February 16 and demanded that they sign an undertaking to withdraw their names from party's founding document, which they refused to do.
It was unclear whether security forces had contacted the two remaining founding members, Faisal al-Zu'bi and Shaikh Muhammad Al Mufrih.
Al-Khadhar, on the list of founders, told Human Rights Watch that intelligence officers called him during the day on February 16 to summon him for questioning, but that he refused to respond without a judicial warrant. That night, al-Khadhar said, four cars came to his house in Buraida, in the northern governorate of Qasim, and woke his family up with loud noise. When he came to the gate, intelligence officers demanded that he sign a statement that he was not a founding member of the party, which he said he did as it was technically true because he had not yet reviewed the final founding document before it was published with his name included. He said he believed his colleagues were being detained in Riyadh's al-‘Ulaisha prison, which is run by the General Directorate for Investigations.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with al-Dughaithir, who confirmed that he was a founder of the party and said that he was not detained at the time when Human Rights Watch spoke to him but that he preferred not to speak about his interaction on February 16 with the security forces.
Two other activists close to the party's founders said their mobile telephones were all switched off. Human Rights Watch called the mobile numbers of two founders, in addition to al-Khadhar and al-Dughaithir, and found them also not in operation.
The founding document released on February 9 by nine intellectuals, including al-Khadhar - university professors, lawyers, and activists - said the Islamic Nation Party (Hizb al-Umma al-Islami) would be the kingdom's first political party. The founding document, emailed to Human Rights Watch, stated that the founders set up the party to "partake in supporting the peaceful political reform movement."
The party's stated goals included greater democracy, such as direct elections of parliament and government, independence of the judiciary, and separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers; promotion of human rights, including free speech, the right to peacefully protest, and promotion of women and civil society; and what they called Islamic values in domestic and foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, also does not allow independent civil society organizations or public protests. In 1993, authorities arrested and detained for long periods members of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, a political advocacy group. In 2004, authorities arrested the organizers of a public petition calling for a constitution and elections, Abdullah al-Hamid, Matrook al-Faleh, and Ali al-Dumaini, convicted them following an unfair trial, and in 2005 sentenced them to long prison terms.
In 2007, authorities arrested a group of 10 reformist lawyers, professors, and activists reportedly gathering to found a political party, most of whom remain in detention without charge or trial. In 2008, a court sentenced two brothers, Abdullah and ‘Isa al-Hamid, to prison for encouraging a public protest.
Since January 2009, two other Saudis, Muahmmad al-‘Utaibi and Khalid al-‘Umair, have been detained without charge or trial for planning a peaceful rally in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Mikhlif al-Shammari, a human rights activist, has been in Dammam prison since June 2010 for criticizing Saudi authorities and hard-line clerics.
Domestic intelligence forces on March 3, 2010, arrested al-Khadhar's son, Thamir, a 19-year-old student, and have detained him since then without charge or trial after he called for constitutional reform and said Interior Ministry officials should be put on trial for the arbitrary detention and secret trials of terrorism suspects.
On January 28, 2011, Saudi security forces in Jeddah briefly arrested between 30 and 50 demonstrators who gathered after noon prayers to protest the government's handling of recent floods there in which at least 10 people have died, Reuters and individual sources reported. On December 21, 2010, Interior Ministry officials summoned Saudi citizens who had planned a peaceful sit-in for December 23 to demand better jobs, health care, education, and urge reform, including an end to corruption, ordering them to cancel the protest, which they did.
"By routinely arresting peaceful political activists Saudi authorities have made abundantly clear that they rule without consent of the ruled," Wilcke said. "Whoever demands civil and political rights that challenge absolute Saudi family rule risks punishment."