Saudis Protest Detentions With Hunger Strike

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 7, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 6 -- More than 70 Saudis spent Thursday without food or water to protest the detention without trial of at least 11 dissidents.

Organizers of the kingdom's first hunger strike say the participants include lawyers, journalists, students and families of the detained dissidents. They are observing the two-day strike in their homes in several cities to circumvent a ban on assembly.

"I'm joining them to protest my father's detention," said Mariam Hashemi, a university student in Jiddah. "He's been sick and in solitary confinement for almost two years now. I don't think this protest will help much, but it's a way to express our dejection. It's not much, but we have nothing else."

Another protester in Jiddah, Sameera al-Bitar, said she was disappointed that more people were not participating.

"This is a historic step in Saudi Arabia, a major moment in the path to political reform. But people here are still living in a culture of fear," said Bitar, a businesswoman. "The Saudi government has been trying to improve the image of the kingdom abroad. But that image should also be changed internally by implementing the basic rights granted to citizens under Saudi laws."

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that does not tolerate dissent, political parties or nongovernmental civil and human rights groups. The strike's organizers could face arrest.

Although free speech restrictions have eased since King Abdullah took the throne in 2005, the hard-line Interior Ministry continues to stifle political reform. The ministry has not commented on the protest.

The group's 13 leaders issued a statement on the social networking site Facebook and on several Arabic Web sites two weeks ago calling for participants. The statement said the group wanted to draw attention to the dissidents' imprisonment and demand that the government charge or release them. The organizers have said that they were aware they risked arrest but that it was a sacrifice they were willing to make.

The most prominent of the detained dissidents, Matrouk al-Faleh, is a professor of political science who has called for an elected parliament, prisoners' rights and freedom of expression. He was detained in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in May.

Several of the dissidents, detained as a group in Jiddah in 2007, are accused of supporting terrorism. But human rights organizations said the men were arrested to prevent them from announcing the formation of a political party.

Former government employee Mansour al-Odah was arrested in the northern city of al-Jouf in December for trying to organize a protest.

The leaders of the strike said they were heartened by the public's response.

"We have received calls from every disaffected group, from every corner of Saudi Arabia," Mohammad al-Qahtani, a Riyadh-based professor, told al-Jazeera International on Thursday.

Another organizer, Fowzan al-Harbi, an engineer, said the group had already achieved its goals, one of which was to educate Saudis about their rights under the kingdom's existing laws.

"We included those laws in our online petitions so more people would be aware of them," he said. "Many people here don't know they have the right to counsel and a fair trial."

Most importantly, Harbi said, his group wanted to start a culture of peaceful protest. "We wanted to educate people about ways to protest peacefully. And we achieved that, too."

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