IV. The Clash and Crackdown of April 2000

The security agencies protect [the Ismailis] … We reinforce the security patrols so that they practice their beliefs in peace … They are not second- or third-class citizens, but first class.

—Governor of Najran Prince Mish’al bin Sa’ud, April 200546

Background: The Ministry of Interior plan to shut Ismaili mosques

In early 2000, in a clear provocation to the Ismaili community and in violation of their right to religious freedom, Saudi authorities devised and carried out a detailed plan to shut down Ismaili mosques and arrest worshippers on the day that Ismails celebrate the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr.47

Sunni religious practice relies on the physical sighting of the new moon to mark the start of Eid, so precise dates cannot be predicted with certainty and depend on the locale where the moon sighting takes place. In Ismai’li practice, however, Eid is calculated through a fixed calendar. If there is a difference in the day of Eid between Ismailis and Wahhabi Sunnis, the Ismaili day almost always comes earlier. Saudi Arabia allows only the Sunni method of determining the Eid date. In 2000, Sunni Muslims expected to see the new moon, and thus celebrate Eid, on January 4 at the earliest. Ismaili Eid fell on January 3.

Official documents show that six weeks earlier, on November 22, 1999 (13/8/1420), Minister of Interior Prince Nayef ordered police to close Ismaili mosques on January 3, 2000, and to “place guards and to arrest any trespasser and to charge him.”48 Four days before Ismaili Eid celebrations the Interior Ministry issued a detailed and confidential security plan (a copy of which Human Rights Watch has obtained) ordering the closure of 20 mosques in Najran city, naming the police officials responsible for closing each mosque, and specifying the number of police cars on standby. The plan did not state how to close mosques or how to distinguish worshipers coming for daily prayers from those coming to celebrate Eid. The plan also ordered police to close all Ismaili mosques outside Najran city, with the help of “criminal security” officers provided with “tools from the equipment and provisions branch” who would “intensify [their] investigations,” and five other officials who “possess weapons and explosives.” All members of the joint forces were to be at their posts by 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the Ismaili Eid, and the “criminal forensics” department was ordered to provide “experts in crime photography.”49

Ismailis were outraged at this violation of their freedom to worship, but the closures had been anticipated based on past experience, and spiritual leaders had called on Ismails to stay at home, which most heeded.50 A handful of worshipers who went to the mosques on that day were arrested.51

Saudi Arabia has no written penal code specifying what actions constitute criminal offenses. The authorities have sometimes treated as a crime the celebration of non-Muslim religious holidays, as well as Muslim holidays that Wahhabis consider heretical, arresting participants. At other times, there has been little or no official interference, such as during recent public celebrations of Ashura by Shia in Qatif in the Eastern Province. Ismailis’ Eid celebrations are virtually identical to Sunnis’.  Ismailis visit family and friends, share communal meals and exchange gifts, and participate in communal prayers in mosques.

Holiday Inn Events of April 23, 2000

Three months after the authorities closed Ismaili mosques on the Ismaili day of Eid al-Fitr, strained relations between Ismaili Najranis and the governor, Prince Mish’al, came to a head over the arrest of an Ismaili cleric.

On April 23, 2000, officials from the local security police, religious police, and criminal investigation department came to Khushaiwa. They proceeded to arrest a cleric of Yemeni origin, Muhammad al-Khayyat, for what the governor later claimed was “sorcery.” 52 Students inside the mosque protested when officials also began confiscating their religious books, and they scuffled with the police. In the wake of this scuffle, one or more shots were fired. Human Rights Watch has not been able to establish whether officers or students who got hold of an officer’s firearm fired the shot. Accounts of injuries also vary, though there were no fatalities. According to the government, a police officer was wounded. According to Ismaili sources, one of the students was injured.53

One eyewitness told Ali Al Ahmed, a Saudi Shia opposition activist in the United States, that “[t]he security [forces] came to the [Mansura] mosque, and arrested al-Khayyat, and took about 40 books, some from the hands of the students there. Then they asked for IDs and took them. Then they heard a shot, and one of the security officers was hurt. A student tried to take a gun from one of the security people, but didn’t [manage].”54 Another person, not an eyewitness, told Human Rights Watch that persons present during the arrests said that religious police, criminal investigation department, and secret police officials entered the mosque, arrested al-Khayyat, and then began confiscating the books of the students who were present. When the students resisted, according to these accounts, an officer’s weapon was discharged, wounding one student.55

A group of Ismaili elders proceeded to the Holiday Inn, which at the time served as Prince Mish’al’s residence, to demand the release of al-Khayyat. Prince Mish’al told the five leaders that he would not meet with them.56 One participant in the demonstration told Human Rights Watch, “A crowd of up to 60 people, the head of each family, headed to the governor's residence to submit a petition with demands, but the governor refused to meet with them. Then they headed back to the hotel parking lot where the demonstrators were gathering.”57

Security forces on the scene included a special army unit stationed in the vicinity of Najran. This unit had arrived on the scene with armored personnel carriers (APCs) with mounted machine guns. One participant described how, around sunset:

two men from the Saudi special security forces in civilian clothing broke into the lines of the demonstrators and started to annoy the crowd. The Ismaili demonstrators recognized them as strangers and both parties started to exchange insults. One of the two policemen started shooting in the air. A while thereafter the troops started to shoot in the direction of the demonstrators [from behind the demonstrators]. Clashes intensified with the security forces, leaving two dead.58

Ismailis, like other Saudis, typically have a pistol or a rifle in their house or car.  Another participant recalled what happened that day:

I was about 24 years old then. I had a 25 mm pistol and my dagger with me, and five bullets, but the pistol was not loaded. It was hidden. I was in the open area next to the hotel, when a sound came from behind me. There were five shots fired from what sounded like a rifle, then about five seconds later, heavy fire came back from [the] direction of [the] hotel. I cannot tell you what weapon it was.

I took refuge under a car, I saw one person bleeding from the head. Blood was coming from his temple. I took him to the car and others brought another wounded person to another car and we drove off to the hospital—the driver, me, the other guy, and the two wounded.

The person I carried did not have a weapon, only a thob [loose garment worn by men]. I was the first to go to him. After two days he was in coma, and two weeks later he died.

We were there from after sundown prayer [until the shooting] happened. They were shooting until I left for hospital, then I don’t know.59

Other accounts by non-Ismaili Saudi human rights activists speak of Ismailis firing warning shots above or at the hotel, and that government forces, by firing at or above the crowd from behind them, also fired toward the hotel. Several Ismailis said that the demonstrators fired shots at the hotel, where a government forensics team found shell casings. The confrontation left one or two Ismailis dead, and one policeman is said to have died. A Saudi human rights activist who investigated the incident told Human Rights Watch that it was unclear who fired the first shot, but that some Ismaili demonstrators had used their rifles and pistols to shoot at the hotel while others were shooting in the air.60

When the shooting started just before or around sundown the crowd dispersed but security forces arrested (by common account) 400 to 500 persons.61 Most of the demonstrators headed from the Holiday Inn to the Mansura mosque—in the words of some, to “defend” it from Saudi security forces who they feared would raid and raze it.62 One “defender” told Human Rights Watch:

I was at al-Mansura, around 11 p.m. I had a Kalashnikov loaded with one magazine with 30 bullets. I carried it on my back, the gun barrel pointing up. I didn’t take it off once. It is my personal one, I got it from my father after he died. We all have guns in our cars and mine was in my car so we all took our rifles. I was not at the hotel, but came to the Mansura mosque.

We stayed until Monday 1/ 19/ 1421 [April 24, 2000] afternoon. The army was in Faisaliyah [district of Najran city] with tanks, and emergency cars [APCs] with mounted 50 mm machine guns. We thought they would destroy our mosque.63

The “defenders” at al-Mansura mosque prepared booby traps and petrol bombs. On the afternoon of April 24 the Ismaili religious leader (al-Da’i),Husain bin Ismaili al-Makrami, told the people to leave peacefully and go home, which they did. Arrests of Ismailis, begun the previous night, continued.

Arrest Wave

The wave of arrests lasted several months. A local attempt at accounting for all the detainees confirmed 412 Ismailis arrested and still in custody by June 21, 2000,64 and later reports speak of around 600 persons arrested.65 In at least one case the security forces took a family member into custody as a means to pressure wanted persons into giving themselves up. 

An Ismaili man, “Badi” (not his real name), said that he participated in the demonstration at the Holiday Inn and had spoken to the media from there. The next day, the mabahith arrested him at his workplace, a hospital:

They did not say what they came for. They told me, “We are from mabahith, and we need you to come with us.” I took out my mobile phone and threw it to the other people who had come out of my office and asked them to call my father, and I gave them the number.66

“Husain” recounted what happened during his arrest the night of April 23-24:

They set up a checkpoint at the hotel, and arrested people. If they found anything in a car, from a stick to a sharp weapon, pocket knives, light weapons. They would thrust you into one of the APCs, and beat you with rifle buts. I have a friend who was arrested that night and they put him in a bag. He is disabled, he has a problem in one of his legs. They kicked him inside the bag, insulted him—“You deviant,” “You atheist”—until the [external] intelligence came. He almost died among them. Similarly they pilloried everyone whose look they didn’t like … Many people were arrested, and most of them are in al-Ha’ir prison.67

A group of students who had come to Najran when they heard of the standoff in front of the hotel—“to comfort my family” in the words of one—had their names registered at checkpoints as far as 200 km outside Najran. Although they were not present at the Holiday Inn at the time of the incident, security agents arrested them. “Kadhim,” arrested on April 24, told Human Rights Watch:

We came to the Mansura mosque in Khushaiwa, until the Da’i told us to go home, around 3 p.m., then we went to the hotel to see what happened and were arrested. They put us in a flat opposite the hotel, cuffed, blindfolded, from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., without prayer or food or drink. There were many people in the flat, kneeling, it was crowded. If you asked for water they would beat you.68     

Kadhim said he spent 18 days in Najran prison, where intelligence officials questioned him about his role in the events. A “Riyadh Committee” came to investigate, he said, “but there was nothing.”69 Another of those arrested, “`Aqil,” said, “A committee from the National Guard [in Riyadh] came after one week and freed us after 18 days in prison. Sixty-five others were also released.”70 In prison, Kadhim said, the authorities split them up between different cell blocks where “soldiers would kick and beat us for no reason.”71

After their release they returned to their studies and some three weeks later, during a break after examinations, they came back to Najran. Kadhim told Human Rights Watch:

After seven or ten days … there was a phone call that dad had been arrested from his shop. Two intelligence officers [mabahith] had waited for him there and took him, neighbors said. Then shaiba [a reverential term for their father] called from the mabahith and said they wanted me to come. And my brother and I came on 3/3/1421 [June 6, 2000]. They blindfolded us and [arrested us.] My blindfold was removed but I was still cuffed. I asked, “Did you release my dad?” The interrogator said, “No, and we won’t until you confess.”72

(Kadhim’s eventual confession under torture is described in the next chapter.)

Another person who knew the case said that the father, upon being released, had submitted documents to Riyadh to prove that his sons were at university in a Saudi city hours from Najran at the time of the unrest there. The father brought attendance sheets and other documents, this person said, but the mabahith told him not to interfere.73

“Salih,” who worked as an engineer, said he was not at the Holiday Inn, but was at the Mansura mosque the next day with a Kalashnikov and two unloaded magazines of ammunition. On June 2, police arrested him at work for participation in the Holiday Inn events.74

Some arrests targeted Ismailis working in sensitive government positions who had had no role in the events of April 23-24. “Hasan,” a customs official working at the Saudi-Yemeni border told Human Rights Watch:

On 18/3/1421 [June 21, 2000], they arrested me at the border … I wanted to call home but was not allowed, and they took me to the mabahith office in cuffs and blindfolded. There was no interrogation. I was not at the hotel events. Two days later, I was chained and taken to an ordinary plane to Riyadh with three mabahith officers. I was not allowed to speak. [In Riyadh’s al-Ha’ir prison] I was summoned for interrogation … for four days. [They showed me] 150 passport photos, asking if I knew any of these people. I knew about 25, and gave their names.75

An Ismaili mabahith officer (a rarity) was told by his boss several days after the hotel incident that he was not fulfilling his quota of arrests. A relative told Human Rights Watch that this officer was himself arrested because “it was time to arrest people on any charge, preferably weapons possession.” This interviewee commented:

After the events at the Holiday Inn, the mabahith were ordered to bring [into custody] as many people as possible. It was not the quality of the cases, but the quantity that counted. My [relative] still had not brought anybody in a week or so after the events. He said there was just no evidence that he could find to summon someone. So instead he was jailed by the mabahith 10 days after the events. He spent eight-and-a-half months in the mabahith prison simply for not rounding up enough suspects. 76

“Karim,” an Ismaili policeman, told Human Rights Watch that when he reported to his station as usual for work on May 10, 2000, “the director called me. We talked normally, suddenly four mabahith officers came from behind, blindfolded and tied me up. I did not take part in the hotel incident. I had been a policemen for 15 years at that time.”77 His torture during several days of ensuing detention is described below.

46 “Interview with Prince Mish’al bin Sa’ud,” Al-Hayat, April 1, 2005 (23/11/1425).

47 On Eid al-Fitr, Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting and asceticism.

48 Director of the Najran Region’s Police Gen. Dukhail Allah bin Abdullah al-Azwari, “Extremely Secret and Urgent, Not to Be Circulated. Detailed Security Plan Dated 26/9/1420,” Najran Region Police Directorate, Public Security, Ministry of Interior, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

49 Ibid.

50 Human Rights Watch interview with an Ismaili, IN3, Najran, December 13, 2006.

51 Mas’ud Al Haidar and Shaikh Amad Al Sa’b, “Justice is the Foundation of Rule.” letter to King Abdullah, undated, after August 2005, p. 3.

52 “Saudi unrest blamed on ‘sorcerer,’” BBC News, April 25, 2000, (accessed April 25, 2008). Saudi authorities charge several persons each year with “witchcraft” or “sorcery.” “Saudi Arabia: Halt Woman’s Execution for ‘Witchcraft,’” Human Rights Watch news release, February 14, 2008,

53 We asked for clarifications in our letter to the governor of Najran, Prince Mish’al (see Appendix), but received no response.

54 Email communication from Husain to Karam, September 2, 2001. Human Rights Watch has a copy of the email and knows the witness, and spoke to Husain in July 2006 when he referred us to his earlier reporting to Al Ahmed on the matter.

55 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ja’far, Khobar, December 2, 2007.

56 Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad, Najran, December 13, 2006.

57 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with `Abbas, Najran, June 23, 2006.

58 Ibid.

59 Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad, Najran, December 13, 2006.

60 Human Rights Watch interview with Ranim, Manama, Bahrain, December 1, 2007.

61 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with `Abbas, Najran, June 23, 2006.

62 Ibid.

63 Human Rights Watch interview with Hasan, Najran, December 13, 2006.

64 Email communication from a local informant to Amnesty International, June 21, 2000. Human Rights Watch has obtained a copy.

65 “Daniel” (pseudonym), “A Summary of Case of Najran and the Suffering of its People,” undated (written around  2002-3), post to web discussion forum on by “Salam li-Najran” (“Peace to Najran”—pseudonym), April 29, 2005, (accessed  July 12, 2006),.“Daniel” was arrested on December 24, 2004. Human Rights Watch has spoken to “Daniel” and discussed details of the cases he describes. We have also received from several Ismailis in Najran general confirmation of all cases in his report that we cite..

66 Human Rights Watch interview with Badi, Manama, July 6, 2006.

67 Email communication from Husain to Karam, September 2, 2001. Human Rights Watch has a copy of the email and knows the witness.

68 Human Rights Watch interview with Kadhim, Najran, December 14, 2006.

69 Ibid.

70 Human Rights Watch interview with `Aqil, Najran, December 13, 2006.

71 Human Rights Watch interview with Kadhim, Najran, December 14, 2006. Ahmad also described how in Najran prison at the time he was forced to stand for nine hours each day, and how an investigator handcuffed him and put his “boot in my face.” Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad, Najran, December 13, 2006.

72 Human Rights Watch interview with Kadhim, Najran, December 14, 2006.

73 Human Rights Watch interview with Sabah, Manama, July 6, 2006.

74 Human Rights Watch interview with Salih, Najran, December 14, 2006.

75 Human Rights Watch interview with Hasan, Najran, December 13, 2006.

76 Human Rights Watch interview with a Hamid, relative of the officer, Manama, July 6, 2006.

77 Human Rights Watch interview with Karim, Najran, December 13, 2006.