(Munich) - Saudi authorities have arrested over 160 peaceful dissidents in violation of international human rights law since February 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa'ud, to order the immediate release of peaceful dissidents, including Nadhir al-Majid, a writer and teacher arrested on April 17.
Allies of Saudi Arabia have not publicly protested these serious and systematic violations. The European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said on April 18 that she had been "very pleased" with her two-day visit to Riyadh and made no public comments about the political prisoners. Neither Tom Donilon, the US national security adviser who visited Riyadh on April 13, nor Robert Gates, US defense secretary who visited on April 6, publicly commented on the kingdom's human rights violations.
"The EU's silence on the brazen arrest of a peaceful dissident on the first day of its chief foreign policy representative's visit looks like a pat on the back for an authoritarian state," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Silence when more than 160 peaceful dissidents are locked up should not be an option for Brussels or Washington."
Officials of the General Investigations Department (al-mabahith al-‘amma), the domestic intelligence service, arrested al-Majid at his school in Khobar, in the Eastern Province. At the same time, mabahith officers searched his house in the presence of his wife and children, who said that officers confiscated al-Majid's personal belongings. Al-Majid had written an article entitled "I Protest, Therefore I Am" on April 2, in which he said that with the Saudi government's "call to stop demonstrations, we see history bypassing us, and this speaks volumes to the ingrained blindness in political vision, analysis, and consciousness."
Several user groups on Facebook had called for protests on a Saudi Day of Anger on March 11, but a heavy security presence prevented demonstrations in all but the Eastern Province. In Riyadh, Khalid al-Juhani, a Saudi citizen, appeared to be the sole person to brave the security presence to speak to assembled journalists. In an interview with the BBC, al-Juhani described how he lost his fear and despite knowing he would be arrested wanted to experience the freedom of speaking his mind. Al-Juhani's brother, Abdullah, told Human Rights Watch that mabahith officers arrested al-Juhani at his home later that day and that Interior Ministry officials told his family that he is being detained incommunicado in Riyadh's ‘Ulaisha intelligence prison.
Protests in the Eastern Province continued on April 14 and 15 in Qatif and ‘Awwamiyya, two predominantly Shia towns. The protesters, many of them women, held a candlelight vigil to demand the release of Shia detainees who have been imprisoned without charge or trial for 12 years and longer on suspicion of involvement in a 1996 bombing. The demonstrators also called for the release of over 120 detainees still being held for peaceful protests in Qatif and al-Ahsa' provinces since February. Only several dozen have been released, and none of those arrested have been charged with violence.
The Sa'ud family rules Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy - there are no national elections and no effective means of popular participation in decision making. In early March, the Interior Ministry and the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the highest law-interpreting body, reiterated a ban on demonstrations. In February, mabahith officers arrested eight people who announced they were founding what they intended to be the kingdom's first political party, the Islamic Nation Party.
In March, several dozen women and some men protested once a week for three weeks in front of Interior Ministry headquarters in Riyadh for the release, or the speedy and fair trial, of their male relatives who have been detained, most of them without charge, for years in the country's intelligence prisons. The mabahith arrested several of the peaceful protesters.
Saudi authorities have also held a human rights activist, Shaikh Mikhlif bin Dahham al-Shammari, in Dammam central prison since June 2010 on the charge of "annoying others" over articles he wrote criticizing religious extremists and incompetent officials.
In 2009, Saudi Arabia acceded to the Arab Charter for Human Rights, which guarantees in article 32 the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The kingdom is one of few countries that have not yet signed the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
"As the list of Saudi political prisoners grows longer, the silence of the US and the EU becomes more deafening," Wilcke said.