Not forgetting the Saudi hunger strikers

I’m re-reading Arthur Koestler‘s Scum of the Earth at the moment. It’s autobiographical reportage and reflections on his time as a political prisoner in France during World War 2. His accounts of the night terrors of his fellow detainees prompt this post.

“Each of us carried a weight in his memory to put in the Past scale of the balance and lift the Present scale. Yankel carried the weight of his two pogroms and the prison in Lublyana, where people were made to talk by introducing rubber tubes into their nostrils and pouring water through them; Mario carried the weight of his nine years of prison in Italy, including torture by electric shock during the preliminary investigation; Tamas, the Hungarian poet, had his three years of hard labour in Szeged – to quote only my three immediate neighbours in Hutment number 34 in Le Vernet. The fourth one, myself, had his hundred days under sentence of death in Seville.

Most of us had our periodical nightmares, dreams of falling once more into the hands of our persecutors, regularly recurring repetitions of the rubber tubes, the electric shocks, the death patio in Seville. Those amongst us who had no personal experience of torture replaced it by the fear of it. They had more acute, obsessive fear of the O.V.R.A and the Gestapo than those who had actually passed through their hands.” (p94)

He says of his Italian former-Communist friend Mario, whom he left in the appalling conditions of forced labour at Le Vernet shortly before the French turned it over to the Gestapo:

“I could never argue against that particular quiet smile of Mario’s; it made me feel futile and childish although he was younger than I. I knew it had taken nine years of imprisonment to form that smile – three years fermenting in solitary confinement and a further six years to become ripe and mellow while he shared twelve square yards of space with comrades. He had been nineteen when the cell door closed behind him – and twenty-eight when it opened again two years ago. This kind of experience either crushes a man or produces something very rare and perfect – Mario belonged to the latter category.” (p99)

See The Hub on the recent Saudi hunger strike to raise awareness of the Saudi human rights activists who have been detained without trial, several in solitary confinement for months. They went on 48 hour hunger strike earlier this month. Below is background and what has happened in the past week:

First a quick digression to say that the Hub – the media channel of human rights org WITNESS – is an impressive site as long as you keep in mind that mapping more human rights abuses for the US than the Democratic Republic of Congo doesn’t mean that the DRC is a better place to live, rights-wise. Imbalance and disproportionality dogs all participatory projects – in this case it’s probably explained by the fact that many human rights activists are from democracies and they – quite rightly – want to keep their own house in order. It kind of goes with the territory that the more restrictive the authorities in a country, the harder it may be to bear witness to human rights abuses. Taking that on board the untarnished records of Algeria and Iran don’t look quite so good. So basically don’t use the Google map mashup to judge concentration of abuse – it won’t tell you that.

So it’s important not to offer blind support to just anybody who is touted as a human rights activist. Some people and organisations adopt the human rights mantle to sow repression and hate. For example, we have the Islamic Human Rights Commission whose values are exemplified by the following (David T):

“What astonishes me is that the IHRC is regarded as a serious organisation, whose views on muslim issues should be listened to. It should certainly not be regarded as a Human Rights body. This is, after all, the group which shortlisted – as Islamophobe of the Year 2006

“King Mohammed VI of Morocco For his ’so called reforms’ aimed at removing Islam from the the Moroccan people.”.

The reforms in question were the prohibition of polygamy, and the legislation which made it easier for women to divorce their husbands. This the the IHRC’s definition of “Islamophobia”. This is the IHRC’s notion of “Human Rights”.

But shrugging and ignoring threatened human rights activists because we don’t have full reliable information about them risks depriving the people who need it most of international solidarity. The fundamental question should always be not who are they, but what do they want. And to look to trusted sources like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, and cross reference those with participatory sites such as The Hub (which has a conspicuous disclaimer acknowledging they can’t vouch for the veracity of the reports the host, but which has the potential to reach the parts that official NGOs can’t). End of digression.

The Saudi detainees on behalf of whom the hunger strike was observed are all political prisoners – academics, lawyers, writers, jailed for their opinions. Amnesty summarises how nine of them came to be arrested:

“The men are prisoners of conscience detained for their advocacy of peaceful political change and the protection and promotion of human rights, and are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

All of those named above, except for Dr Matrouk al-Faleh, were arrested in the cities of Jeddah and Madinah on 03 February 2007 and are held in Dhahban prison in western Saudi Arabia.

These eight men were targeted because they had issued a petition calling for political reform and discussed the idea of establishing a human rights organization and challenging the impunity enjoyed by the Ministry of Interior’s arresting authorities. The Ministry of Interior, on the other hand, issued a statement claiming the detainees had been arrested because they were collecting money to supportterrorism.

Dr Matrouk al-Faleh was arrested in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, on 19 May 2008. He is held without charge in al-Ha’ir prison for political detainees in Riyadh. He has not been permitted access to a lawyer since his arrest and on occasions has been refused family visits. He is also reported to be denied access to medical attention.”

Human Rights Watch background – overlapping but going by the names, slightly different – I’m not sure how many campaigns are going on:

“In March 2004, Saudi authorities arrested al-Lahim, Ali al-Dumaini, Matrook al-Faleh, Abdullah al-Hamid, and eight other activists for having signed and circulated petitions calling for reform. Al-Lahim, who was released without charge, became the lead defense lawyer for the trial against al-Dumaini, al-Hamid, and al-Faleh, which started in August 2004. In November 2004, the authorities rearrested al-Lahim after he stated on Al Jazeera satellite television that he believed his clients to be innocent. A court in May 2005 sentenced al-Dumaini, al-Hamid, and al-Faleh to nine, seven, and six years in prison, respectively( Al-Lahim remained in solitary confinement in al-Ha’ir political prison until King Abdullah pardoned and released all four just days after acceding to the throne in August 2005. The other activists arrested in March 2004 also remain banned from foreign travel.

Al-Lahim quickly returned to human rights legal advocacy, defending two teachers in court against charges of blasphemy introduced by their colleagues and students who disapproved of their modern, unorthodox teaching methods. King Abdullah pardoned both teachers.

Al-Lahim was the first lawyer to bring a criminal case against Saudi Arabia’s religious police in a court of law. In 2005, he represented a woman, Umm Faisal, in a case against the religious police for wrongful deprivation of liberty. A court ruled that the religious police are “not to be held accountable.”

Religious policemen had stopped Faisal’s car, forced her driver out, and drove Faisal and her daughter at high speed through Riyadh before crashing the car, taking away the women’s mobile phones, locking them inside the car, and fleeing on foot. Al-Lahim is now representing Faisal in her lawsuit against the religious police for damages in that case in a civil court.

In 2007, al-Lahim also represented the family of Salman al-Huraisi in appealing a court’s acquittal of two religious policemen who faced charges of beating al-Huraisi to death in May 2007. The appeal is pending.

Al-Lahim came to prominence in Saudi Arabia and the wider region when he represented the “Girl of Qatif” in her appeal of a sentence to 90 lashes for having in 2006 illegally “mingled” with an unrelated man in a car, before a gang of seven men set upon her and the man and raped them both. After al-Lahim spoke out about the injustice of punishing the victim (, the appeals court increased her sentence to 200 lashes and six months in prison and confiscated his law license (

Al-Lahim stood firmly in support of the woman while senior clerics, judges, and the Ministry of Justice besmirched the young woman’s reputation and others called him a “traitor to the country.” In December 2007, King Abdullah set aside the sentences of the woman and man. “

The prisoners, as listed on the Facebook site:

  1. Professor Matrook H. Al-Faleh, political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, detained by security forces in May 19, 2008.
  2. Attorney Suliman Ibrahim Al-Reshoudi, former judge and human-right advocate, detained in February 2, 2007.
  3. Attorney Dr. Mousa Mohammed Al-Qarni, former university professor and human-right activist, detained in February 2, 2007.
  4. Professor Abdulrahman Abdullah Al-Shomairy, former professor of education and human-right activist, detained in February 2, 2007.
  5. Dr. Abdulaziz Suliman Al-Khereiji, human-right activist, detained in February 2, 2007.
  6. Saifaldeen Faisal Al-Sherif, human-right activist, detained in February 2, 2007.
  7. Fahd Alskaree Al-Qurashi, human-right activist, detained in February 2, 2007.
  8. Abdulrahman Bin Sadiq, Human-right activist, detained in February 2, 2007.
  9. Dr. Saud Mohammed Al-Hashemi, human-right activist, detained in February 2, 2007.
  10. Ali Khosifan Al-Qarni, human-right activist, detained in February 2, 2007.
  11. Mansour Salim Al-Otha, human-right activist, detained in December 12, 2007.

Their defence teams who observed the hunger strike:

  1. Ayman Mohammad Al-Rashed, human-right activist.
    mobile# +966505288354
  2. Saud Ahmed Al-Degaither, human-right activist.
    mobile# +966559201964
  3. Professor Abdulkareem Yousef Al-Khadher, College of Islamic Jurisprudence, Qassim University.
    mobil# +966503331113
  4. Dr. Abdulrahman Hamed Al-Hamed, professor of Islamic economics.
    mobile# +966503774446
  5. Abdullah Mohammad Al-Zahrani, human-right activist.
  6. Abdulmohsin Ali Al-Ayashi, human-right activist.
    mobile# +966553644636
  7. Fahd Abdulaziz Al-Oraini, human-right activist.
    mobile# +966502566678 email:
  8. Fowzan Mohsin Al-Harbi, Human-right activist.
    mobile# +966501916774 email:
  9. Dr. Mohammad Fahd Al-Qahtani, college professor and TV show host.
    mobile# +966555464345 email:
  10. Mohana Mohammed Al-Faleh, human-right activist.
    mobile# +966505388205
  11. Nasser Salim Al-Otha, human-right activist.
  12. Hashim Abdullah Al-Refai, writer and activist.
  13. Waleed Sami Abu Alkhair, writer and activist.
    mobile# +966567761788 email:

Others are listed too, 65 in total. These people are unbelievable courageous to stick their necks out in that authoritarian regime.  They could all end up in prison and worse. It is a very rare act of protest and it mustn’t go to waste. This is why it is important that the Saudi government understands that if they do they will not be forgotten. Amnesty (scroll to the bottom of the following link) lists the addresses of the relevant officials to appeal to by post or fax.

What did they strike for? Most immediately, the rights due their clients according to Saudi’s own Criminal Procedure Law and Arrest and Detention Law, specifically habeas corpus (an instrument to safeguard individual rights against detainment without trial by their state; an independent court decides whether a custodian has the right to hold the detainee; pivotal, in James Somersett’s case, to abolishing slavery in Britain), access to legal representation, periods in solitary confinement to be restricted to 60 days, visits, and a fair trial. More on Saudi law and these detainees from Emudeer on the participatory site Now Public (I wish he’d link to the odd source). Indirectly they were hunger striking for the right to continue their work on constitutional reform – the right for Saudis to gather and express themselves freely.

What happened further to the strike?

Nothing on Amnesty since 11th. Nothing on the Facebook site Recent News since Oct 25 – the Wall is alive but there’s no news.

The last thing I found was The Hub reporting blowback from the action:

From the Saudi organisers on 20th:

“As in example of the latest witch hunts against human right activists is the cancellation of Dr.Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani’s TV talk show (Economic Issues) in Al-Eqtisadiah Business Channel (a Pan-Arab satellite channel) in response to the interviews he had with the international media outlets during the hunger strike. The episodes of blocking blogs that belong to human right activists continue, the authority’s latest casualty is Mr. Esam Mudeer’s Blog which has been blocked because of his involvements in publicizing, publishing, following and participating in the hunger strike. Unfortunately, these suppressive steps become the inevitable fates for those Saudi activists who intend to uplift and call for human rights.

The activists’ responses to the government’s suppressive campaigns have been very remarkable. The crackdown on venues for expressions has drawn activists closer to one another, and attracts new waves of sympathizers who will eventually join the human right activities. In particular, young followers are fascinated by the culture of human rights and justice due to the fact that it is built around virtues of peace and civic means, their supports to that culture are clear examples of the solidarity and dedication they showed to such a noble cause.”

Why are things so quiet?

As mentioned above Amnesty gives addresses of Saudi officials. I have a hunch they’re not so amenable to grass roots action so I will be contacting my MP and Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

4 thoughts on “Not forgetting the Saudi hunger strikers

  1. Pingback: Saudi hunger strikers: why the silence? « Shiraz Socialist

  2. Pingback: Saudi Human Rights. « ModernityBlog

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