x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Saudi human rights activist in prison for 'annoying others'

Mekhlef bin Daham al Shammary has been detained for more than a month is being investigated for allegedly "annoying others" with his online essays.

RIYADH // A prominent Saudi human rights activist detained for more than a month is being investigated for allegedly "annoying others" with his online essays that criticise government officials and Saudi religious scholars, according to his legal representative and a family member. Mekhlef bin Daham al Shammary, 57, who is being held in Dammam General Prison, was arrested on June 15 while on a visit to the east coast city of Jubail where he had been having dinner with a friend, 80km north of Dammam.

He has not yet been formally charged, but "annoying others" is the accusation in his prison file, said Ibrahim al Mugaiteeb, founder of the Dammam-based Human Rights First. "He is a prisoner for a crime that is not even defined," added Mr al Mugaiteeb. "'Annoying others.' To me that's a very funny and obscure accusation." Mr al Mugaiteeb said that Mr al Shammary gave him power of attorney for Mr al Shammary's affairs prior to his arrest. Mr Al Mugaiteeb added that the judge who has Mr al Shammary's prison file told him yesterday that he had decided to return the case to prosecutors "because it's a security case".

Mr al Mugaiteeb added that Mr al Shammary's detention was "illegal" because under Saudi law an arrested person is to be brought before a judge within 24 hours and that "Mekhlef up to now has not seen a judge ?. I do not accept or condone what is happening to him". Gen Mansour al Turki, the spokesman for the ministry of interior, confirmed that Mr al Shammary had been held, but added that he had not received any information about the reasons for his detention. "All I know is that he was arrested by the police of the Eastern Province," Gen al Turki said last week.

Mr al Shammary's son, Fahad al Mekhlef also confirmed that "annoying others" was the accusation in the prosecutor's report, adding that the basis for the complaint was his father's online articles. Mr al Shammary, known for his outspokenness, is not associated with any rights organisation and works independently on behalf of individuals whom he believes are being treated unfairly. A Sunni Muslim, he has spoken out against anti-Shiite discrimination in the kingdom in many articles. In 2008, he made a publicised visit to the predominantly Shiite city of Qateef where he prayed in a Shiite mosque. The previous year, he met a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Hasan al Saffar. After that meeting, Mr al Shammary was detained for three months without charge. He has filed a court case against the interior ministry for wrongful arrest. That case is pending.

Among the six online articles being scrutinised now by Saudi authorities is one in which he takes a prominent Saudi religious scholar to task for his harsh statements about the revered Iraqi Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, according to a statement issued by the New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, which said it had seen a copy of Mr al Shammary's prison file and that the articles were posted on www.saudiyoon.com and www.rasid.com.

Other articles by Mr al Shammary that are cited for the accusation of "annoying others" include one on alleged failings in government efforts to promote tourism, and one criticising several Saudi religious scholars for focusing on "moral" issues such as gender mixing in public instead of unemployment, poverty and other societal problems, the rights group said. The organisation added that the "frivolous" charge being considered against Mr al Shammary violates his right to free expression. Mr Al Mekhlef, his son, said that all his father's articles "are legal and honest".

cmurphy@thenational.ae