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Saudi Arabia Feature: An Introduction to the Protests, Prisoners, and Deaths in Qatif (Riyadh Bureau)

Protest in Qatif, September 2012

Ahmed al Omran writes on his site Riyadh Bureau:

The grieving mother and sisters of Khaled al-Labad sat at the corner of a small room in their shabby house. Black and white photos of him covered the wall behind them. Al-Labad was killed ten days earlier by security forces outside his house in the restive town of Awwamiya, eastern Saudi Arabia. His relatives pointed to bullet holes in the house’s wall where he was shot dead. Al-Labad’s younger brother, Bader, was arrested.

“Every step I take in this house reminds me of him,” the mother said in a voice full of sorrow.

Al-Labad was one of 23 people wanted by the government for allegedly “damaging public and private property, illegal possession of firearms, shooting at citizens and security forces, using innocent citizens as human shields and attempting to pull them into confrontations with security forces to serve foreign agendas.”

The Interior Ministry announced the list during a press conference in early January 2012 and asked those whose names appear on the list to turn themselves in. The announcement was in connection to the unrest in the mostly-Shiite Qatif area, where protesters frequently took the street to demonstrate since March 2011, defying the country’s ban on demonstrations.

Four people from the 23 on the list turned themselves in when the it was announced in January and were later released. Hussein Al-Rabie, also on the list, was arrested in early September.

Al-Labad refused to surrender. The 26-year-old appeared in a video uploaded to YouTube in April, where he read a statement rejecting the Interior Ministry’s accusations.

“I stand here before you and reject all the accusations they fabricated against me, for no reason other than that I demanded the rights of citizens and sought justice,” he defiantly said, and vowed to continue to protest “to serve my country and religion, and nothing will ever stop me.”

Al-Labad was part of a protest movement that has been growing more steadfast in Qatif, where the Shia population has for long complained of discrimination. The government denies that it discriminates against its Shia citizens and insists that the protesters are a “small minority who do not represent that honorable people of the region,” according to the Interior Ministry’s spokesman Major General Mansour Al-Turki.

Inspired by the uprisings that swept the Arab world since the end of 2010, protesters in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia first took to street in March 2011 to demand the release of prisoners who have been detained since the late 1990’s on suspicion of involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 United States Air Force personnel in the summer of 1996.

Years passed and those prisoners, who became known as the “Forgotten Prisoners,” remained in jail with no trial, according to their families. “We were not told they have been convicted. Maybe it’s a secret trial? What are the charges?” said the daughter of Abdulkarim al-Nemer, one of the prisoners. “They tell us nothing.”

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. It has no elected government or parliament, and street protests are banned by law. The Sunni majority of the country follows a strict interpretation of Islam where the obedience to the rulers is strongly emphasized.

When activists online called for protests in March 2011, the Interior Ministry issued a warning against protests, followed by a fatwa, or religious edict, by scholars from the official religious establishment saying protests are forbidden in Islam.

Calls for protests across the kingdom fizzled, except in Qatif, where young people continued to protest. In addition to calls for the release of the “Forgotten Prisoners,” protesters demanded an end to the discrimination, political reforms and a constitutional monarchy.

That prompted the government to try to contain them through dialogue. In March 2011, the Eastern Province Governor Prince Mohammed bin Fahad met with a youth delegation from Qatif to listen to their demands. The delegation presented a letter to the prince detailing the changes they hope to see. The letter listed a number of demands including human rights, development in the Shia areas and freedom to practice religion.

“We ask you to put a clear timeline to implement these crucial demands,” read the last paragraph of the letter to the prince.

Activist Ahmed al-Mushaikhes, a co-founder of the unlicensed Adala Center for Human Rights, attended the meeting that lasted for three hours. “The prince was a good listener,” al-Mushaikhes said. “He ordered the formation of a committee to look into the Shia situation.” That committee was formed but never convened, according to al-Mushaikhes. None of the demands listed in the letter to the prince has been addressed, he said.

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