By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 27, 2008
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, April 26 -- Saudi Arabia's most popular blogger was released Saturday after serving four months in prison without charge.
Fouad al-Farhan, 33, was detained Dec. 10 after authorities warned him about his online support of an activist group. At the time of his arrest, the Interior Ministry said only that his violations were not related to state security.
Farhan had used his blog to criticize corruption and call for political reform in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy.
In a telephone interview Saturday, Farhan said he was happy to be free and described his time behind bars as "a unique experience." He said he had been "fairly treated" but would not comment on the specifics of his case.
"I will be blogging soon," he said.
The Interior Ministry did not comment on the release.
Farhan's arrest, believed to be the first of an online critic in Saudi Arabia, had been condemned by bloggers around the world, including more than 200 in the kingdom. In February, protesters demonstrated against the arrest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
Farhan's supporters continued his blog and set up the Free Fouad Web site, but Saudi authorities blocked both sites earlier this month.
Saudi Arabia restricts press and speech freedoms and does not allow political parties, civil rights groups or public gatherings. But since King Abdullah took the throne in 2005, official tolerance of criticism and debate has grown.
New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a report last month condemning the Saudi justice system, saying that those who protest detentions without trial or charge and other critics are often put behind bars.
The report cited the cases of Farhan, academic Abdullah al-Hamid and Judge Sulaiman al-Rushoodi.
Hamid, a prominent democracy activist, began a six-month jail sentence in March for encouraging a peaceful demonstration. He had previously spent a year and a half in prison for calling for a constitutional monarchy before being pardoned by King Abdullah in 2005.
Farhan, who was educated in the United States and owns a computer programming company, had said before his arrest that an Interior Ministry official warned him that he would be detained for his online support of a group of men, including Rushoodi, arrested in February 2007.
The government accused the group, made up of activists, academics and businessmen, of supporting terrorism. An attorney for the men has said they were arrested for their political activism and their intention to form a civil rights group.
Rushoodi was planning to sue the Interior Ministry for holding prisoners without charge.
Unlike most of the thousands of men and women who blog in the kingdom, Farhan uses his real name online.
Farhan's arrest had frightened Saudi bloggers but also made them aware of their power, said blogger Ahmed al-Omran.
"The arrest was scary and intimidating to bloggers but also empowering. It made bloggers know that their blogs are influential, and now they feel more of a responsibility and take their blogs more seriously," said Omran, 23, who blogs under the name Saudi Jeans.