x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Activists test Saudi's stomach for dissent

Protests are rare in kingdom but word has spread on Facebook of a symbolic hunger strike to oppose continued detention of 11 men who support political reforms.

Mohammad Fahd al Qahtani, one of the activists planning to take part in the symbolic hunger strike, in his office in Riyadh.
Mohammad Fahd al Qahtani, one of the activists planning to take part in the symbolic hunger strike, in his office in Riyadh.

RIYADH // A group of Saudis is planning a two-day hunger strike in a rare protest against the prolonged detention of 11 men who had called for political reform in the kingdom. The activists are publicising their hunger strike, the first of its kind in recent memory, on Facebook, the social networking website. Several Saudi bloggers, writing in both Arabic and English, are also promoting the protest. The strikers plan to refrain from all food and drink in their own homes on Thursday and Friday, which is the weekend here, so as to avoid violating a ban on unauthorised assemblies. "If we get in one place, we might get in trouble," said Mohammad Fahd al Qahtani, 42, a professor of economics and a host of a local television programme. "We are a group of young activists - I'm maybe the eldest - and we are supporting all people who get jailed for expressing their sentiments." The protesters are skirting the boundaries of what is politically permissible in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that forbids political parties and demonstrations. Under King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Saudis have been given a green light to discuss openly reforms in such areas as education, women's rights, labour rules, economics and domestic abuse. But there is still little tolerance for political dissent, and harsh criticism of officials is often severely punished. Gen Mansour Turki, a spokesman for the interior ministry, declined to comment and said he was unaware of the planned hunger strike and did not have information on the 11 detainees' current status. Similarly, a spokesman for the government-appointed Human Rights Commission said he could not comment on the hunger strike. "We can't comment on anything we don't know anything about," Zuhair al Harithy said. The original group of 13 hunger strikers has grown to almost 40. They include friends and relatives of the detainees, some of whom have been held for up to 20 months, as well as Saudis with a general concern about violations of human rights in their country. Fowzan Mohsin al Harbi, 31, a mechanical engineer at King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh, said he was participating in the brief hunger strike as a symbolic way of bringing attention to the detentions because there had been no official explanation of why the 11 were being held. "We do everything, but no response until now," Mr Harbi said. "We send letters to the interior ministry. We send letters to the Human Rights Commission? But no response." In the past some prisoners have gone on hunger strikes, but "this is the first time" for such a protest outside Saudi prisons, Mr Harbi said. In a statement posted on Facebook and on a site created by the strikers (www.humriht-civsocsa.org), they note that detainees are guaranteed certain rights under Saudi criminal laws. Those laws state, for example, that a person should not be held more than 60 days without being charged and should be allowed visits by his family and lawyer. "Our demand is quite simple: either to set the detainees free or instantly grant them fair and public trials," the statement said. Perhaps the best-known of the detainees is Matrouq al Faleh, 55, who was arrested in May in his office at Riyadh's King Saud University, where he teaches political science. His arrest came two days after he published a scathing online report on conditions at a prison in Qassim province. Mr Faleh had been previously jailed in 2003 after calling for Saudi Arabia to become a constitutional monarchy. He was freed in 2005 after a pardon by King Abdullah. After Mr Faleh's arrest in May, 137 Saudi academics, lawyers, businessmen and physicians signed a petition to the king in which they called his detention a "step backwards" in light of King Abdullah's "forward-thinking" policies. They asked that he be released or brought to court for an open trial. The other detainees include a human-rights activist detained in December in Jouf and nine residents of Jeddah all arrested in Feb 2007. The interior ministry told the local press that the men had been involved in illicit funding of militant networks, but so far they have not been publicly charged. Most of the detained men were known for their advocacy of political reforms and one Saudi contacted by them before their arrests said they had been planning to launch a political party. Mr Harithy said the Human Rights Commission has spoken to the interior ministry about all of the 11 detainees and "we were promised the cases will be solved soon". He added the commission president, Turki K al Sudairy, had personally contacted interior ministry officials about Mr Faleh's case. Christoph Wilcke, who follows events in Saudi Arabia for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail that the hunger strike is a "potent sign" of failure by the Saudi judicial system. "The Jeddah group of reformers and al Faleh have been arrested for their public and private calls for reform," he said. "But the law and the courts have failed to protect their human right to peacefully express their opinions." Mr Harbi said he joined the hunger strike after concluding that Mr Faleh was detained "because he's very active in human rights". Although concerned about the possible consequences of the protest, he said he felt he had no choice. "Yeah, I'm afraid," Mr Harbi said. "But what we do? We have to ask for our rights. We have to defend our human rights for our country and for our children. We have to move, like every people in the world." cmurphy@thenational.ae