Pro-reform Saudi blogger freed without charge

A blogger arrested for his pro-reform opinions in Saudi Arabia has been released without charge after being imprisoned for nearly five months.

Fouad al-Farhan, 32, the first online critic to be arrested by the Saudi government, was freed from Dahban prison in Jeddah at 5.30am on Saturday, according to his wife.

Mr Farhan, who has two children, told The Washington Post he was glad to be free and was "fairly treated" in jail.

His release was revealed by a fellow blogger Ahmed al-Omran, 23,on his website Saudi Jeans. "Fouad has been released and he is back home with his family now," he said. "Just spoke with Fouad and he sounds fine."

The Independent appealed to the President George Bush in January to use a visit to the Gulf state to secure the blogger's release.

Washington said that it had raised his case with the authorities in Riyadh "at a relatively senior level".

Mr Farhan was detained on 10 December following comments he made in support of 10 men who had been arrested on suspicion of financing terrorists. He said that they were Saudi academics who were promoting democracy in a kingdom that restricts freedom of the press.

He also claimed that government officials repeatedly asked him to tone down his blog posts.

In a letter to friends written just before he was detained, he said: "I was told that there is an official order from a high-ranking official in the Ministry of the Interior to investigate me. They will pick me up anytime during the next two weeks."

The ministry has remained silent throughout Mr Farhan's imprisonment. It did not confirm his release and refused to reveal the charges on which he was arrested, saying only that they were not security-related.

Mr Farhan is known as the "godfather" of blogging as he was one of the first to blog using his own identity. He defines his online mission as the "search for freedom, dignity, justice, equality, public participation and other lost Islamic values".

His supporters maintained his blog during his imprisonment and set up a Free Fouad website and a page on the social networking site Facebook that has more than 1,000 members.

He once wrote to a friend: "Every time I blog, I know there is someone out there who hears my voice. I don't care if this 'someone' agrees with me or not, likes me or not. All I care about is that I voiced my opinion."

This month, the government blocked his blog along with two other websites that called for his release, but they are running again. Mr Farhan was quoted as saying after his release: "I will be blogging again soon."

Blogging has become increasingly popular in Arab countries, where traditional media is often prey to censorship. Reporters Without Borders classifies Saudi Arabia as a top "internet enemy" and estimates about 400,000 websites are on the government's blacklist.

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