(Beirut) - The Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abd al-‘Aziz, should immediately release an Islamic scholar who was detained after he criticized the ministry's handling of detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. Dr. Yusuf al-Ahmad was detained without charge the day after he published his criticism, apparently as a direct result of his internet post.
On July 7, 2011, al-Ahmad posted a video message on YouTube in which he criticized the long-term detention of security suspects without charge or trial. In the video, the Islamic scholar, who teaches at Imam Muhammad bin Sa'ud University in Riyadh, also criticized the arrests of women who went to the ministry on July 2 and on previous occasions to protest, peacefully, the long-term detention of their male relatives.
"The Saudi Interior Ministry seems intent on arresting every last critic standing," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Now it's put behind bars a prominent cleric, apparently just because he dared to criticize the government's policy of arbitrarily detaining people without any sort of judicial process."
Al-Ahmad's Twitter account administrator reported on July 8 that the scholar had been arrested that day at his father's house in Dammam, in the Eastern Province. Saudi authorities have not announced any charges against al-Ahmad.
His criticism of government policies and officials is protected by his right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said.
Al-Ahmad is a controversial scholar who has previously defied government policies. In 2010, he issued a religious ruling (fatwa) on television after King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz had decreed that only government-appointed clerics of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars could issue fatwas. Al-Ahmad's fatwa criticized the employment of women as supermarket cashiers, which the government had supported.
Al-Ahmad has repeatedly criticized what he has called a "Westernizing" project by the government to end the segregation of women in work and education, such as by opening the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, the kingdom's only coeducational facility.
"Al-Ahmad's fiercest critics are Saudi women rights activists who have been debating the scholar's views on the internet, but are now calling for his release," Wilcke said. "By arresting al-Ahmad, the Saudi Interior Ministry has not only attempted to silence a critic, but to stifle a lively debate about the role of women."
In its 2008 report, "Precarious Justice: Arbitrary Detention and Unfair Trials in the Deficient Criminal Justice System of Saudi Arabia," Human Rights Watch detailed the arbitrary arrest of thousands of people suspected of terrorism. In a 2009 report, "Human Rights and Saudi Arabia's Counterterrorism Response," Human Rights Watch found that many remained in detention without charge or trial for years.
Trials for hundreds of the security detainees in 2009 were held in camera and did not meet international criteria for a fair trial. In 2011, the kingdom continued the trials of thousands of terrorism suspects and allowed local media to attend and report on the proceedings, but not international media or human rights observers.
"Saudi authorities should let international observers inspect Saudi intelligence prisons and observe the trials of security suspects," Wilcke said. "The arrest of peaceful critics and their relatives undermines the effort to bring those responsible for violent acts to justice."