The limits of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia
This is a translation of my column that appeared in the Feb. 24, 2012 edition of O Globo:
The young Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari could not have dreamed that his comments posted on Twitter on the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, on February 4, would have such shrill and dangerous consequences for him.
“I have loved things in you, and hated others,” wrote Hamza, 23, on Twitter, in an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad, who died over a thousand years ago. “If I saw you, I would not kiss you, but extend my hand to you as any other friend, and would smile at you. But I will not pray for you.”
As the founder of Islam, more than 1,400 years ago in Mecca, all Muslims revere Muhammad as an almost sacred person, that can never be criticized or have his teachings put into doubt. So it’s not so difficult to understand the fury of the reaction that exploded on Twitter and Facebook. More than 30,000 tweets about Hamza’s comments flew through cyberspace, mostly attacking the young former columnist for the daily Al-Bilad, with many calling him an apostate, which can lead to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
A group formed on Facebook, with over 8,000 members, asking for his death. Stunned by the backlash of believers across the Islamic world, Hamza removed his comments and then deleted his Twitter account altogether. He fled the country on February 9, but a few days later he was arrested in Malaysia when he tried to board a flight to New Zealand, where he planned to seek political asylum. The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz, had ordered his arrest and the kingdom had allegedly activated Interpol to detain the young wherever he was in the world. Soon after, he was sent back to the kingdom, where he remains in detention awaiting trial.
Studious, Hamza grew up in a family of great faith, and memorized the entire Holy Qur’an, not an easy achievement. But, with his inquisitive mind, he began to devour books and, according to his mother, habitually locked himself in his room to read books and did not talk much with his family.
Days after he was arrested, she called a local religious TV program and pleaded for her son, crying while insisting that her son was a good boy, and that he had repented having made those comments. But that was not enough for Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, a religious leader and scholar, who cried in a lecture, that was filmed and later posted on YouTube, over the words that Hamza had dared to say about Prophet Muhammad.
“His repentance was said with cold words,” Sheikh Nasser said. “He’s being disingenuous, he should be executed. We must not engage in debates with atheists. But instead, we should warm up our swords to fight them.” He ended by repeating that Hamza should be tried by a Shariah court for apostasy and sentenced to death despite having repented.
But do not think that all of Saudi Arabia is in the Middle Ages. Thousands of Saudis shocked by the outpouring of intolerance against Hamza urged calm, good judgment and tolerance of a young man whose only sin was exposing the doubts of his faith on the Internet. Even Princess Basmah bin Saud al-Saud, a daughter of the late King Saud, wrote an open letter to King Abdullah and Crown Prince Naif, asking them to give a royal pardon to the young Hamza.
It is perhaps ironic that in a country where there is no freedom of expression, we find the largest number of Twitter users per capita in the Middle East, and where the billionaire Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal recently bought $300 million in shares of Twitter, which will give him a 6% stake in the company. But this is the other side of a society that few outside the region see: A predominately young and educated population, with 100,000 Saudis currently studying in the US on scholarships from the Saudi government. Religious, yes, but most moderate and wanting things that all young people want: Jobs, a less corrupt government and a voice in their future endeavors.
It is interesting to see how the Internet is being used by many young Saudis to express themselves and to hold leaders accountable for their actions. Twitter has an anonymous account that regularly denounces various excesses of princes, ranging from those who earn huge commissions on government contracts, or those who have huge palaces. And it is revealing that some of the princes have even responded to the accusations, defending themselves on Twitter, something that would never happen in traditional media that is tightly controlled by the government. On YouTube, several rookie filmmakers are gaining thousands of followers with their mini-series, of 15-minute episodes, which they post regularly, dealing with a wide variety of topics ranging from urban poverty to young love.
I do not think Hamza will be executed. He is being used as a scapegoat by the ultraconservatives in the country who do not like modernity. If the government can have him be tried by the Ministry of Information, he will likely just be fined and banned from writing for a few years. If tried in a Shariah court, he might be condemned to death. But then the king will intervene and forgive the young man. What I do know for sure is that the Internet, despite being heavily censored by the government, has changed forever the relationship between the Saudi people and their leaders, and is a channel of expression and communication that the government can never close.
To end the bloodshed in Syria
This is a translation from the Portuguese of my column that appeared in O Globo newspaper of Rio de Janeiro on 10/02/2012
The relentless violence that has spread in Syria since March of last year, with demonstrators calling for more freedom being violently suppressed by government forces, in recent days has reached unacceptable levels in the city of Homs. Hundreds of men, women and children are being brutally murdered by gangs of pro-government militias, or victims of the relentless bombing of the air force that dropped more than 200 bombs on the city Monday in only four hours.
After the veto of Russia and China at the UN Security Council in New York on Sunday of a resolution condemning the Syrian government for the violence in the country and demanding the beginning of a dialogue with the opposition, supporters of the defeated resolution were reduced to cursing the two Eastern powers. The US closed its embassy in Damascus, and Britain and France, among others, called back their ambassadors for consultations. The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, withdrew their envoys in Syria and expelled all Syrian diplomats from their territories.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the violent and sadistic streak of his father, the bloody Hafez, constantly gives speeches accusing the protesters of being foreign spies, mobilized to ruin the country. In his mind it is all a plot to end his reign as ruthless dictator. Indeed, Syria became a police state in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad came to power in a military coup. All his opponents were killed, imprisoned and tortured, or pushed into exile abroad. A network of informants across the country instilled a fear of criticizing any government measure or leader in public. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the massacre of Hama, which occurred in February 1982, when Hafez ordered the army to end an Islamist revolt in that city. The whole city was demolished by a brutal bombing that killed up to 40,000 people.
Unfortunately, leftists in the West were left starry-eyed when Bashar (and his wife Asma) inherited the leadership of Syria after Hafez’s death in 2000. They were seduced by the two young professionals, good-looking, charming, educated in London modern and secular in outlook. Many had hopes that Bashar was going to change things in the country, opening the economy and allowing a space for political opposition. And he did liberalize the economy, allowing neighboring Turkey to invest in many areas, a radical change from the past when the economy was centralized and state-controlled, a legacy from the era when the Soviet Union was the great ally of Syria. The problem here is that most contracts went to his Alawite allies, followers of the same obscure offshoot of Shiism, of which Bashar is a member.
For a long time Syria was considered the leader of Arab nationalism, especially because of its hatred for Israel, to which it lost the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War. But with the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the region, Syria was not immune to the revolutionary wave, and here we are almost a year after the first clashes between protesters and supporters of Bashar, with 6,000 dead in Syria and the country in a brutal civil war. The dilemma we face is this: Must we invade Syria to end the cowardly massacre of innocent civilians in Homs, or do we have to pursue diplomacy? I think it’s more than clear that the time has come to use force against Bashar, because talking with him has led to nothing, and has given him the opportunity to kill more of his countrymen.
In a very interesting article published in The National of Abu Dhabi, on February 5, an Emirati military analyst, Ahmed Al Attar, and William J. Maloney, argued that a force composed of troops of the GCC countries, Jordan and Turkey could invade Syria from the south and north to establish liberated zones where forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and refugees from cities under government attack such as Homs and Hama, could seek refuge. NATO (of which Turkey is a member) and the US would help with their air power to destroy the air defense systems of the Syrian government, and maintain a no-fly zone over the entire country.
It is clear that the invaders would have to enter Syria with clear and public defensive goals to only protect civilians and create a safe space for the opposition to negotiate the exit from power of Bashar and ensure the transition to a democratic future with honest and open elections open to all parties.
The American academic Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is the former director of planning at the US State Department, believes that following the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”, which was used in 1999 when NATO bombed the former Yugoslavia to end the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo, an invasion of Syria to protect civilians being brutally killed there, could be supported by the UN.
It is true that there is little stomach now in the US and Britain for an air campaign over Syria like what was done in Libya. But it is precisely here that rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar can provide the money to finance such a military campaign in Syria, and use its latest generation fighter planes bought from the West. Syria forms an axis of Shia allies starting in Iran, going through Iraq and Syria, and ending with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Taking Bashar out of power would weaken this Shiite alliance, which threatens the political and economic interests of the GCC and the West.
Syria and the world would be much better places without the “monster” of Bashar al-Assad. We cannot allow his forces to continue to kill thousands of innocent Syrians, who are clamoring for more freedom, and keep our arms crossed waiting for diplomacy to save them. The time to act is now.
Brazil to investigate use of tear gas in Bahrain
THE Brazilian Foreign Ministry, Itamaraty, announced on Tuesday (10/01/2012) that it was going to investigate the lethal use of Brazilian-made tear gas against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain, following the publication of my story in O Globo newspaper on Monday in which I quote Bahraini activist Zainab al-Khawaja saying that Brazilian-made tear gas was responsible for the deaths of at least two children.
The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper carried the news this morning in its print edition and online. Click here to read the story in Portuguese.
Here is my quick translation of their story into English:
Brazilian foreign ministry investigates the use of tear gas in Bahrain
The Brazilian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it is examining whether there was a breach of contract in the use of tear gas made by a Brazilian company, Condor Non-Lethal Technologies, against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain.
Re-exports of arms without the authorization of the seller country is prohibited, and Condor has not sold tear gas to the monarchy of the Persian Gulf, according to the company and the foreign ministry.
The most likely hypothesis, however, is that the gas was used by one of the other five monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to support the King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
Condor, a maker of “non-lethal” weapons and ammunition based in Rio and that earns 30% of its earnings in exports, has confirmed that countries in the region are clients, but does not reveal which ones.
The use of the tear gas was denounced by activists from Bahrain and reported in the newspaper “O Globo” by journalist and blogger Rasheed Abou-Alsamh.
Activists attribute the death of a baby to a substance of the gas, whose main chemical agent is chlorobenzylidene malononitrilo.
Condor said it received the news of the baby’s death with “disbelief”, stating that its tear gas is also used in Brazil and in 40 other countries and that it follows “international safety standards.”
This case calls attention to the lack of transparency in arms exports, when it is Brazil’s official policy to encourage the domestic arms industry.
In September, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed an interim measure to exempt such manufacturers from taxes, which the defense ministry says is aimed to put them on equal footing with foreign competitors.
At the time, Dilma said that one of its goals was to increase exports.
These sales must be authorized by the foreign ministry and the Directorate of Controlled Products Inspection, linked to the command of the Brazilian Army.
Asked if there is no political obstacle to the sale of weapons of crowd control to dictatorships, the Foreign Ministry said an analysis is made on a case-by-case basis.
Government and companies claim confidentiality agreements in not disclosing details of sales, and say this is international practice.
Legislation to be submitted to Congress by the defense ministry would provide for the setting-up of a public database on acquisitions and sales of weapons.
Numbers available today in the Ministry of Development show that exports of arms and ammunition, excluding dual-use items like jeeps and helicopters, grew 320% between 2000 and 2011, from $69.7 million to $293 million.
Brazil sold $19.5 million worth of weapons between 2006 and 2011 to five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwaitis), according to this data.
In the ranking of leading global weapons exporters, according to the International Institute for Peace Studies in Stockholm, Brazil was in 14th position in 2010. The list is headed by far by the US and Russia.
Saudi reformists sentenced to long jail terms, lawyer calls trial a travesty
Published in the Dec. 1-Dec. 7 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly:
Sentencing of 16 reformists in Riyadh to stiff jail terms raises doubts about fairness of the Saudi judicial system, reports Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
“Horrible, uncalled for and unfounded,” were the words used by Bassim Alim, the lawyer of the 16 reformists sentenced on 22 November to stiff jail sentences in Riyadh ranging from 10-30 years in prison, after being found guilty of forming a secret organization, attempting to seize power, incitement against the King, financing terrorism, and money laundering.
Dr. Saud al-Mokhtar, a medical doctor from Jeddah, received the stiffest sentence of 30 years in jail, a 30-year travel ban and a fine of SR2 million (around $533,112), for allegedly being the head of the group.
“He was the most visible of them all in the media, but there was never a group, it was a complete fabrication,” said Alim in a phone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly from Jeddah.
Suleiman al-Rashudi, a retired judge was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, Musa al-Qurni to 20 years, Walid al-Amri to 25 years, Abdulrahman Sadiq to 20 years and Abdulaziz al-Khariji to 22 years, according to Alim.
The group came under the scrutiny of the security services after Dr. Mokhtar held a series of weekly meetings over several months at his home in Jeddah, open to the public, in which politics and current events, such as the war in Iraq, were discussed. The doctor also regularly raised charitable donations to send to orphaned children in Iraq and other Arab countries.
The first nine of the group were arrested in Jeddah in February 2007 after they met to discuss setting up a human rights organization, and had circulated a petition calling for political reform, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. All 16 were held for more than three years without being charged or tried until August 2010. Alim was not allowed to meet with any of them before the trial.
The 16 reformists were accused of planning to start a political party, something that is illegal in the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Alim denies this: “There was no plan to set up a political party. There were plans to petition the king to set up a human rights organization to educate the public about civic rights.”
Alim admits though that a smaller sub-group of the 16 reformists had met with the hardline Crown Prince and Interior Minister Naif ibn Abdulaziz months before the arrests began, and that he had warned them to stop their organizing. Some observers speculate that this may be why they were treated so harshly in detention and handed such stiff sentences.
“Dr. Saud al-Mokhtar held a diwaniya in his home every week, and up to 200 people would attend in a single sitting,” explained Alim. “Dignitaries from the Islamic world would attend, as well as former ministers, philosophers, writers, journalists and government officials. His campaign to raise money for Iraqis was broadcast on Saudi TV, and the account number for donations was publicly known,” he added.
US Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in 2007 that “based on the evidence I have seen, it appears more likely that these men were actually democracy activists.”
At the time though, Nawaf Obaid, a security consultant to the Saudi government, insisted that the government had intelligence saying that the money collected by Dr. Mokhtar had been diverted from needy Iraqis in order to buy weapons for Al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq.
“You must prove that the money was diverted, and that he (Dr. Mokhtar) knew it was being diverted,” said Alim, adding that the government did not have much evidence. “At the beginning I was given access to the list of indictments. They only had (records of) meetings with different people, and they tried to extrapolate from there. They had no phone recordings, no documents, no witnesses to prove their accusations,” he explained.
Although those sentenced last week are of an Islamist persuasion, Alim insists that Dr. Mokhtar never supported Al-Qaeda or its ideology.
“Dr. Saud has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. All of his writings were always against the Taqfeer way of Al-Qaeda, and to warn people of the danger of Al-Qaeda and their ways,” said Alim.
“It is surreal and so ridiculous. They fabricated these accusations and could not even come close to making them sound realistic,” added Alim. “There is no gun, and no smoke coming out of the gun. This was a crucifixion of the justice system. The judge came with a predetermined sentence in mind.”
The defendants have 30 days to appeal once the judge gives his written sentence, which is expected in another week. Alim says he is hopeful and will fight to the very last moment.
Asked whether he would appeal to King Abdullah for clemency, Alim said that many people had already sent appeals to the king, but that there had been no response so far.
“I feel that that King Abdullah is not responding to our appeals for clemency,” said Alim.
Gay Saudi diplomat denied asylum by Obama administration
ALI Ahmed Asseri, the gay former Saudi diplomat in Los Angeles, has had his political asylum application denied by the Obama administration because of apparent fears that giving refuge to him might upset relations with the kingdom, according to Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident in Washington, D.C.
“This was a political decision by the Obama administration, who are afraid of upsetting the Saudis,” said Ahmed in a phone interview. “His initial interview with Homeland Security was very positive, but then they came back and grilled him for two days after they found out that he had worked in the public prosecutor’s office in Saudi Arabia. He had been an inspector to make sure that judicial punishments, such as lashings, were carried out within the law—not more, not less. They then accused him of participating in a form of torture,” explained Ahmed.
More than a year ago, I wrote about Asseri applying for political asylum after he claimed that the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles, where he had worked as first secretary in their legal department, found out he was gay after following him when he went out to socialize at gay bars. He told Michael Isikoff of NBC News that he feared he would be executed if he were forced to return to the kingdom, after the consulate refused to renew his diplomatic passport. The Saudi Embassy in Washington claimed at the time that Asseri’s tour of duty was over in the US, and that the Saudi government had asked him to return home.
Ahmed said that Asseri is planning to appeal the decision, and that this process could extend for several years.
Asseri has been reluctant to speak to the press, and is under medication for severe back pain. Ahmed says that he has encouraged him to do television interviews so as to publicize his plight and gain public sympathy, but that Asseri has so far refused.
It is unclear to which country Asseri would be sent to if the US government finally succeeds in denying him asylum.
Saudi Shias riot yet again for better conditions
Saudi security forces probably did not realize that their arrests of two elderly men in their 70s in the village of Awamiyah in the Eastern Province on the night of 3 October would lead to riots in this Shia-majority area for two nights running, injuring 14 people, including ten policemen.
Saleh al Zayed, 72 years old, was one of the men arrested, in an attempt by police to force his son and that of the other man, accused of participating in anti-government protests, to surrender. Zayed suffered a heart attack, the news of which ignited the violent protests outside the police station in which Shia youths threw Molotov cocktails and fired guns at security forces. Videos uploaded to YouTube showed groups of young Saudis, their faces covered by t-shirts, taunting police and blocking roads with empty oil barrels and bonfires.
Comprising roughly ten percent of the kingdom’s population of 23 million, the two million Shia live mostly in the oil-rich Eastern Province, and have been protesting regularly for more freedom ever since Saudi forces were dispatched to neighboring Bahrain in March to help the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifas put down the Shia-led protests there.
Shias have long faced discrimination in Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia which follows a very conservative Wahhabi interpretation of the religion, in which Shia are considered heretics. Human Rights Watch in a 2009 report called on the kingdom to set up a national committee to ensure that Shias had equal access to higher education, equality in employment, including in the security forces, high ministerial positions, and freedom of worship. Unfortunately, to date little has been done to improve the situation of the Shias.
The Saudi Interior Ministry slammed the latest riot, blaming the violence on “a group of outlaws and rioters on motorbikes,” who had gathered in Awamiyah near the city of Qatif “carrying petrol bombs”. It vowed to use an “iron fist” in dealing with such disturbances, and blamed the riot on incitement “from a foreign country that aims to undermine the nation’s security and stability,” according to the Saudi Press Agency. This is usually taken as code-language for meaning Iran was behind the unrest.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr of Awamiyah, a prominent Shia cleric, was quick to call for calm, urging protesters to use “words” rather than “bullets” in their fight for more freedom and equality. “The (Saudi) authorities depend on bullets…and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice,” said Nimr in his sermon on the night of 4 October. He said the youth were provoked into rioting after police fired live bullets at them.
Saudi Arabia has not been immune to the uprisings across the Arab world this year, with protests called for by women demanding the right to drive in March. But the authorities responded with massive shows of force, placing hundreds of armed police on the streets of major cities to deter any protests. King Abdullah, the absolute monarch, also recently announced a financial aid package worth $35 billion, which includes higher salaries for government workers, the building of more subsidized housing for less-well-off Saudis and payments for the unemployed.
Some analysts said they were not surprised at the unrest in the Shia-majority areas, and said they expected more demonstrations in the future unless the conditions of the Shia were improved.
“I can’t say I was surprised,” said Alex Vatanka of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “This is after all something that has taken place on a periodic basis. It has only intensified due to the broader momentum unleashed by the Arab Spring and perhaps also due to the Shia mobilization next door in Bahrain.”
On the other hand, Tawfiq Alsaif, a prominent Shia intellectual in the Eastern Province, said he was surprised by the scale of the Awamiyah riots, and stressed that the economic development of the depressed area would do much to alleviate tensions.
“What has surprised me was the scale of the incident on the one hand, and the politically-poor response of the state, on the other,” said Alsaif. “Awamiyah is a town with long-standing economic and social problems. Located just 600 meters from some oil fields, it is very much underdeveloped, and has a high rate of unemployment, and poor health, transport and education services. Thus, for at least the past four decades, it has been known as a hotspot, both socially and politically. During the last five years, Qatif Municipal Council has made an attempt to restructure the town as a step to eliminate poverty and improve public services. The Ministry of Finance has already agreed to part of the project that is expected to be carried out in the coming four years. Therefore, we should not ignore the political and economic sources of tension,” he concluded.
Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, said there were many similarities between what Shias in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were calling for, even if Shias are the majority in Bahrain and have historically enjoyed more freedom than their Saudi counterparts.
“There are particular grievances among Saudi Shia over their lack of religious freedom and a perception that they are treated as second-class citizens,” said Kinninmont. “Many Shia citizens in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are deeply offended by their governments’ history of treating them as though they are somehow disloyal. And many Saudi Shia were alarmed to see their government send tanks into Bahrain to support the Bahrain government as it crushed a peaceful uprising there.”
So far, Shia protests in Saudi Arabia have been limited to small groups of younger Saudis, unlike in Bahrain where Shias of all ages took the streets in massive protests this past spring. Some analysts give credit to older Shias in the Eastern Province for calming the spirits of the young, but for how long this will continue is uncertain, though it does seem clear that neither the Saudi government nor the Shia community want their confrontations to reach the scale of those in Bahrain.
“Saudi Shia have been quiet compared to Shia in Bahrain,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I believe this is because the elders in their community have urged restraint. The future depends on whether the elders will continue this policy, and whether the elders will continue to have influence and control over their youth.”
With King Abdullah already 87, and Crown Prince Sultan also in his 80s, the next in succession is hawkish Interior Minister Prince Naif, who has always bristled at Iran. This could bode ill for the Shia.
“Many Shia in Saudi Arabia, especially the older generation, regard King Abdullah as somebody who has tried to improve the living standards of the Shia community. However, Prince Naif is significantly less popular among the Shia community and many are concerned that they will suffer further marginalization after he comes to the throne,” noted Kinninmont.
Henderson said that the Saudi government could show goodwill towards its Shia community by appointing a Shia minister and spending more money in the Eastern Province, but noted that neither is likely.
“The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is set in the historical context of the rivalry between Sunni and Shia Islam. The events in Bahrain, and to a lesser extent in Qatif governorate, are the frontline of these rivalries,” explained Henderson.
Saudi Shias have been well aware of the attempts by some in the Saudi government to link them to Iran, the regional Shia powerhouse, and have therefore gone to great lengths to emphasize their independence, both spiritual and financial, from the Iranian mullahs. Even so, it is doubtful that these efforts will be able to shield them from further intrigues in the ongoing battle for influence in the Arab world between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1068/re9.htm