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(New York) - Saudi Arabia should immediately release protesters and critics arrested and detained without charge over the past weeks, Human Rights Watch said today. More than 100 people have been arrested in the Qatif district, and about 45 in the al-Ahsa' district, both Shia population centers in the kingdom's Eastern Province. A smaller number of people have been arrested in Riyadh and Qasim governorates.

The arrests violate the rights to peaceful expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

"While King Abdullah announces financial gifts to Saudi citizens, his police arrest those who want more meaningful change," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The scale of arrests has risen dramatically over the past two weeks."

Saudis have demanded political change in the wake of the popular uprisings that toppled the leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, but the government has not responded to the demands for a constitution and elected parliament, or the release of political prisoners. Instead, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz on February 23, 2011, announced a $35 billion package of financial assistance to the unemployed and support for first-time home buyers. On March 18, he announced new assistance totaling $96 billion for similar measures, in addition to creating 60,000 new security sector jobs.

In early March, the Interior Ministry and the Council of Senior Religious Scholars publicly reiterated the government's ban on protests ahead of demonstrations for a Saudi "Day of Rage" that had been called for March 11. That day, hundreds of people demonstrated in the streets of Qatif and al-Ahsa', calling for the release of nine Shia men held for over 13 years without charge or trial, and dozens of people demonstrated in Riyadh, calling for the release of thousands of Sunni security suspects held without charge or trial, some for over seven years. Similar protests took place in the Eastern Province on March 17 and 18, and in Riyadh on March 20.

In front of the Interior Ministry in Riyadh, police detained Bahiya, Dana, and Badria al-Rashudi and held them for a day, two fellow activists told Human Rights Watch. They are the daughters of Sulaiman al-Rashudi, a 76-year-old former judge and reform advocate arrested in February 2007 and held for years before prosecutors charged him recently, a lawyer for another man arrested and imprisoned with al-Rashudi told Human Rights Watch. Al-Rashudi is prohibited from contacting his lawyers. The daughters were there to demand their father's release.

On the night of March 20, the authorities arrested Muhammad al-Bajadi at his home in Qasim province, a statement from the Saudi Association for Political and Civil Rights said and another activist confirmed. Al-Bajadi, a member of the association, which the government has refused an operating license, had supported families demonstrating at the Interior Ministry to demand their relatives' release. Mubarak bin Zu'air, a lawyer whose father Sa'id bin Zu'air, and brother, Sa'd bin Sa'id bin Zu'air, have long been detained without charge by the country's domestic intelligence service, was also arrested, as was Abd al-‘Aziz al-Qaffari, demonstrating for the release of his brother.

Professor Abd al-Karim al-Khadr told Human Rights Watch that on March 20 he went from his home in Qasim province to the Interior Ministry in Riyadh to inquire about his son, Thamir, a rights activist detained without charge since March 2010. Police there arrested his other son, 17-year-old Jihad. Al-Khadr did not hear from Jihad until early on March 25, when he briefly saw him at Riyadh's Ma'dhar Police Station. Officers there informed him that their superiors had prohibited communication with those arrested.

Saudi domestic intelligence forces, the Interior Ministry's Directorate for General Investigations (mabahith), which runs its own prisons, also arrested two Syrian nationals over the past month, apparently for their peaceful criticism of political conditions. On February 26, the mabahith arrested Bashar Mihriz ‘Abud at his office in Riyadh, where he recently had started work as an editor of Mobily, the magazine of the mobile phone carrier of the same name, a Jeddah-based human rights activist told Human Rights Watch.

‘Abud had worked for eight years as an editor for the prominent daily newspaper Okaz and continued to write for the publication. His most recent article, written shortly before his arrest, detailed the life of the Syrian filmmaker Umar Amiralay, who died on February 5. Amiralay had been a vocal activist for political change in Syria, signing petitions in 2000 and 2005 calling for an end to emergency rule and the release of political prisoners there. ‘Abud's wife, now in Syria, told Human Rights Watch that she had received a call from her husband on March 19, saying he was in al-Ha'ir prison south of Riyadh, and that his interrogators had finished their investigation about his article.

On March 21, also in Riyadh, the mabahith arrested Dr. Ala' al-Rashi, owner of the Cultural Critic House, a Syrian publishing company. Saudi Arabia's Information and Culture Ministry had invited al-Rashi to this year's international book fair in February, where he had exhibited his publishing house's books. Professor Abdullah al-Hamid, a Saudi political reformer whose books are banned in Saudi Arabia, told Human Rights Watch that his books on Islamic norms and constitutional rule had been exhibited by al-Rashi at the book fair. Al-Rashi's wife confirmed this account to Human Rights Watch and said that government censors confiscated these books at the book fair, but did not indicate there would be further legal action against al-Rashi.

Security forces in the Eastern Province arrested scores of people during protests there on March 11, 17, and 18. They arrested four people on March 25 during small protests in al-Rabi'iyya and al-‘Awwamiyya, towns in the Qatif district, a local activist told Human Rights Watch.

A member of the eight-person committee of families of detained persons told Human Rights Watch that on March 23, they requested a meeting with the governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Mohammad al-Fahd bin Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa'ud, to seek the release of more than 110 people detained at protests over the past weeks, including more than a dozen children. Security forces have released ten protesters over the past week.

Prince Mohammad declined the meeting. His deputy, Prince Jilawi bin Abd al-‘Aziz al-Jilawi, met with the families, but refused to release the protesters unless community leaders "quieted down the streets," a person present at the meeting told Human Rights Watch. The government has not charged any of the detained protesters, but required the recently released protesters from Qatif to sign a pledge not to participate in future demonstrations.

Human Rights Watch on March 17 spoke to two people who took part in the demonstration that day. They said that the protests were peaceful, but that at 8:25 p.m. a member of the security forces in civilian clothes drew a pistol and shot two protesters, Ali al-Zayid and Ali al-Saffar, wounding them. The two were among a throng trying to take away the camera of a suspected mabahith officer who was taking pictures of the demonstrators. Security forces then carried out large-scale arrests and transferred the injured protesters to a military hospital, demonstrators and local news sources said. Saudi Arabia expelled a Reuters correspondent, Ulf Laessing, over his reporting on the incident.

Some of the arrests seemed arbitrary, mistakenly targeting people who had not taken part in the protests. Human Rights Watch spoke to the brother of Abdullah Al Zayid, who said that security forces had arrested his brother shortly after his return by car from Kuwait on March 18, believing him to be one of the protesters, although he had not been in the country. A relative of another person detained for protesting, Husain al-Yusif, told Human Rights Watch that security forces arrested him as he stood beside his shop on the street in Qatif where the protesters where passing by, although he was not involved in the protest.

From al-Ahsa' district in the southern Eastern Province, Human Rights Watch received updated lists of demonstrators arrested in small protests there on March 11 and 18. Police arrested 27 people on March 11, including seven children, and have released only one person, according to a local activist. On March 18, police arrested another 18 people, another local activist said, three of whom have since been released. None of them have faced any charges.

The International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights guarantees freedom of expression and assembly in articles 19 and 21. Saudi Arabia is not party to the covenant, but in 2009 acceded to the Arab Charter for Human Rights, which also guarantees these rights. Saudi Arabia is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantees freedom of expression and assembly in articles 13 and 15. The convention also provides in article 37 that children may be detained only "in conformity with the law . . . as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time," that they must "be separated from adults in detention," and that they have the right to maintain contact with their families.

"By arresting its peaceful critics and refusing any talk of political reform, Saudi rulers are fast becoming the last hold-outs in a region yearning for democratic change," Wilcke said.

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