Blogger who dared to expose Saudi corruption is arrested

Claire Soares
Thursday 03 January 2008 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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Fouad al-Farhan knew they were coming for him. A few days before Saudi security forces swooped on his offices, he sent a letter to friends telling them he was a wanted man. "They will pick me up any time in the next two weeks," he predicted.

His crime? Writing one of the most widely read blogs in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Farhan, 32, who describes his online mission as "searching for freedom, dignity, justice, equality, public participation and other lost Islamic values", had already broken ground by refusing to hide behind a pen-name as he vented his spleen about the rampant corruption blighting political life. Now he has clocked up another first the first blogger to be arrested in the kingdom.

The blogger was picked up on 10 December from the offices of his computer company in Jeddah, but it was not until this week that the interior ministry finally confirmed his arrest.

Blogging has seen something of a boom in Saudi Arabia, allowing dissident voices a space in a society were the media is kept on a tight leash and where political parties and public gatherings are banned. There are an estimated 600 bloggers in Saudi Arabia, male and female, conservative and liberal, writing in English and Arabic.

The arrest of Mr Farhan has sent shock waves around internet users in Saudi Arabia. "Although we have seen bloggers in Bahrain, Kuwait and Egypt arrested and jailed, I thought this wouldn't happen here," said Ahmed Al-Omran, 23, a student in Riyadh who blogs under the name Saudi Jeans.

He added: "Saudi Arabia doesn't usually jail journalists (they ban them, but they don't throw them in jail), and I thought those arresting citizens who exercise their right of free speech would be wise enough to choose their battles."

The Saudi interior ministry said Mr Farhan was being held for "interrogation for violating non-security regulations" and declined all further comment. But in the letter he wrote before he was detained, Mr Farhan offers some more specifics: "The issue that caused all of this is because I wrote about the political prisoners here in Saudi Arabia and they think I'm running a online campaign promoting their issue."

A group of 10 academics were arrested by the authorities last February. They were accused of supporting terrorism but have yet to be charged. Their campaigners say that the terrorism story is a charade and the men are being punished for their political activism.

Mr Farhan said he had been asked to issue an apology. "I'm not sure if I'm ready to do that," he said. "An apology for what? Apologising because I said the government is [a] liar when it accused those guys of supporting terrorism?"

His decision to stick to his guns may have cost him his liberty. The Committee to Protect Journalists described his arrest as deplorable. "Detaining writers and holding them for weeks without charge is appalling," said its director, Joel Simon. "We call on Saudi authorities to release him at once."

Until that happens, Mr Farhan will be hoping that people pay attention to the closing words of his pre-arrest letter: "I don't want to be forgotten in jail."

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