RIYADH // Jamila al 'Uqla began weeping when she recalled the last time she saw her husband. His hands and feet were shackled, he had not brushed his teeth or combed his hair for five days. And he was refusing to eat until he could talk to his lawyer. Ms 'Uqla said her husband, Matrouq al Faleh, 55, had no idea why police took him from his university office on May 19. Since a brief prison visit with him on May 24, neither she nor his lawyers have been allowed to speak with him.
"He's a patriotic guy," Ms 'Uqla said of her husband, a longtime human rights activist, during a recent conversation in her home. "He is against the radicals and extremists. He wants dialogue so we will solve our problems because we can't isolate ourselves from the rest of the world." As Saudi Arabia continues to wage an underground battle against violent religious extremists - underscored by its recent disclosure that it has arrested 520 suspected militants so far this year - the government also continues to muzzle Saudis demanding greater political participation.
In his almost three years on the throne, King Abdullah has quietly given Saudis a green light to openly discuss reforms in such areas as education, women's rights, labour rules, economics and domestic abuse. Though few reforms have been implemented, many Saudis feel their country is pointed, if not yet swiftly moving, in the right direction. But as the arrest of Mr Faleh and other activists illustrate, there is no such tolerance for political dissent. As an absolute monarchy, political parties and demonstrations are forbidden. And harsh criticism of officials is often severely punished.
That may be why Mr Faleh was detained. He was taken from his office at Riyadh's King Saud University, where he teaches political science, by 15 Saudi security police, two days after accusing the interior ministry of abusing human rights. The complaints came in a scathing online report on conditions at a prison in Gassim province, where two other activists - Abdullah and Issa al Hamid - are jailed.
The Hamid brothers are serving sentences of, respectively, six and four months for encouraging a group of women to stage a peaceful protest in July 2007 against the longtime detention without trial of their male relatives. Mr Faleh cited the jail's dirty, crowded conditions as well as "the wretchedly hot visiting area", whose wire fences resemble those of a chicken coop. In 2004, Mr Faleh was imprisoned after calling for Saudi Arabia to become a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. He was later released when King Abdullah pardoned him.
In a petition to the king, 137 Saudi academics, lawyers, businessmen and physicians called Mr Faleh's detention a "step backwards" in light of King Abdullah's "forward-thinking" policies. They asked that he be released or brought to court where charges against him can be openly litigated. Ahmed al Omran, a blogger, also noted the irony of Mr Faleh's arrest in light of King Abdullah's nod towards reform. "It is truly sad," he wrote on the Saudi Jeans website, "that in a time when our king says even his majesty is not above criticism, people are being arrested for merely speaking their minds".
The lack of legal transparency, and disregard for legal limitations on the time someone can be held without charge, are troubling to many Saudis. In another case, most of the 10 advocates of political reform detained in Jeddah in Feb 2007 are still being held without charge. Theories about why range from suggestions they were planning to form a political party to allegations they were funding terrorism in Iraq.
"We have a lot of gossip and rumours [about the arrests]. We still don't know why," said Abdulrahman al Habib, a scientific researcher in Riyadh. If they were funding terrorism, he said, "we will support our government of course. But let it be [proven] in open court." Mr Habib said he is among "a very small group" of people openly advocating for quicker reforms in human rights, education and free speech. "We support King Abdullah's point of view about reform," he said. "We support his direction."
But, he said: "Our way is very soft language because we think the government is very sensitive" and it tends "to exaggerate what we do sometimes". Gen Mansour al Turki, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said he had no information about why Mr Faleh was detained. As for the Jeddah arrests, Mr Turki directed a reporter to a statement made shortly after their detention. He noted the statement said they had been held "in relation to terrorism financing". Their cases "are still being investigated", he added. "When it's time, they will be prosecuted."
Two other recent arrests appear to have been sparked by outspoken criticism of officials or prominent persons: Fouad al Farhan, a blogger, was jailed for four months, and an Ismaili Muslim leader who harshly criticised the governor of Najran has been jailed since late May. In a move to better address concerns about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, diplomats representing 20 European Union countries in Riyadh have organised a "human rights experts group" to meet regularly with Saudi officials. The group held its first meeting with the head of the government-appointed Human Rights Commission on Monday, according to Alex MacDonald-Vitale, a British diplomat.
The commission's president, Turki K al Sudairy, said the 90-minute talk was "beneficial We explained to them the major topics we are working on now. They had intelligent questions." Asked about Mr Faleh's arrest, Mr Sudairy said that, despite inquiries to the interior ministry, "we have no clear understanding of what's going on. However, I have a feeling that it's going to be resolved soon." Meanwhile, Ms 'Uqla worries about her husband, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. And soon, she notes, it will be two months since he has seen his family for having made "a demand peacefully, not with weapons".