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Saudi Arabia: Free Cleric Who Backs Change

Three Petitions for Constitutional Monarchy Attract Almost 2,000 Signatures

(Munich) - Saudi authorities should immediately release a Shia cleric apparently arrested on February 27, 2011, for calling for a constitutional monarchy and equal rights for Shia in his Friday sermon, Human Rights Watch said today.

The domestic intelligence agency, the General Directorate for Investigations, summoned Shaikh Tawfiq al-‘Amir to Hofuf in the al-Ahsa district of the Eastern Province and then arrested him, according to family members. No official reason was given for his arrest.

"The Saudi government should listen to the demands of its citizens, not seek to stifle them," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Calling for equal rights for an oppressed religious minority should not be a reason for harassment and arrest."

The arrest comes amid mounting pressure for political reform in Saudi Arabia as pro-democracy demonstrations sweep through the Middle East. A total of close to 2,000 Saudis have put their names to three separate petitions calling for a constitutional monarchy. The government so far has not arrested any of those who signed the petitions, which were made public last week.

However, the authorities have reportedly blocked access within the kingdom to the website ("My Nation"), where one of the petitions appeared.

On February 16 the authorities arrested a group of people who had announced their intention to found the country's first political party, the Islamic Nation Party (Hizb al-Umma al-Islami).

One petition, the so-called "youth" petition, signed by more than 40 people and initiated by young journalists, was made public on the day of King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz's return to Saudi Arabia on February 23, following a three-month absence for medical treatment. The petition called for an elected parliament, a separation of powers, a review of the Basic Law, and a basic administrative law, among other demands.

A second petition, "Toward a State of Rights and Institutions, " calls for an elected parliament with full legislative powers, a separation of the offices of king and prime minister, and the release of political prisoners, among other demands. Over 1,550 people have signed it, including some high-profile Islamist clerics who had vehemently opposed King Abdullah's promotion of women in the public sphere.

The third and latest petition, released on February 26 under the title, "National Declaration for Reform," was signed by more than 330 people, including leading liberal reformers, and includes the most detailed reform program. It calls for elections to decision-making bodies on the local, provincial, and national levels, as well as a review of the Basic Law to include rights protections, true separation of powers, and the release of political prisoners, among other demands.

Various internet sites have called for a Saudi "Day of Rage" on March 11 and March 20, with nationwide demonstrations. Public protests are banned by the authorities in Saudi Arabia. Publicly identifying with demands for political reform remains risky in Saudi Arabia and can lead to harassment or detention.

On February 25 there were peaceful marches in the Shia towns of Safwa and Qatif in the Eastern Province. Residents of al-‘Awwamiyya, an adjacent small Shia town, held a silent vigil the same day calling for the release of the so-called "Forgotten Prisoners," nine Shia Saudis detained without charge or trial for over 12 years over unproven allegations of their involvement in the 1996 attacks on US military targets in Khobar that killed 19 Americans.

"The Saudi government risks being overtaken by history," Wilcke said. "Throughout the region citizens are demanding their rights. Persisting with outdated authoritarian ways is a recipe for instability."

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