x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Saudi authorities ignore hunger strike

Saudi political activists who observed a Facebook-organised, stay-at-home, 48-hour fast vow to force the government to listen.

RIYADH // A two-day hunger strike to protest against the extended detention of 11 Saudis who had called for political reforms drew more than 70 participants and was carried out without incident, according to two Saudis who helped organise the unusual action. "It went very well," said Mohammad Fahd al Qahtani, 42, a professor of economics. "We want to use this new concept of peaceful civic protest to demonstrate for our rights."

The Saudi government ignored the hunger strike, which the protesters publicised online and then carried out in their own homes in order to avoid running afoul of prohibitions on unauthorised public gatherings. "They ignored us, but we didn't expect a fast reaction because usually the interior ministry waits, and when people forget, then they come and arrest you," said Fowzan Mohsin al Harbi, 31, another hunger striker who is a mechanical engineer at King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh.

The local press also ignored the hunger strike, which is believed to be the first of its kind and ran on Thursday and Friday. But Al Jazeera, the Doha-based satellite television channel, which often likes to tweak Saudi government sensibilities, broadcast an interview with Mr Qahtani. It was recorded in Al Jazeera's Riyadh studio. Mr Harbi said the lack of local press attention did not bother him because "the hunger strike was all over the world in the media". The protest was covered widely in the western media.

Mr Harbi said the organisers were aiming "to start a culture of peaceful protesting" and "to educate people about their rights". He added that they were happy that "the first experiment" went well. The 11 Saudi detainees on whose behalf the protest was held include Matrouq al Faleh, 55, a prominent human rights activist who was arrested in May at 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 prison conditions.

The 10 others include a human-rights activist detained in December in Jouf, and nine residents of Jeddah known for their advocacy of political reforms who were arrested in Feb 2007. Law enforcement authorities said the Jeddah men had been involved in illicit funding of militant networks. But so far, none have been publicly charged. The 13 original hunger strikers publicised their action on Facebook, the social networking website. That publicity attracted more participants, and 59 people signed up at the Facebook site to observe the 48-hour fast.

In addition, the online announcement drew more than 300 comments in English and about 560 in Arabic, according to Mr Harbi. Most were supportive of the hunger strike and its aims. Mr Qahtani, who described the Saudi government as being "in a state of denial" about the protest, said there were would be more such actions against human rights violations in the kingdom so "no one is forgotten in the dungeon system of Saudi Arabia".

"We're not going to go away, you will see; keep watching," Mr Qahtani said. cmurphy@thenational.ae