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The price of protest in Saudi Arabia

By Abeer al-Sayed
Women protesters were arrested and ill-treated in Riyadh last Saturday – three of them remain in detention. © Private

Abeer al-Sayed recounts her arrest at the weekend after she and a group of women and children took part in a protest against the ongoing detention of their relatives outside the offices of Saudi Arabia’s state-founded National Society for Human Rights. Her husband, Suliaman al-Rushudi, has been detained incommunicado since December 2012.

When we turned up at the National Society for Human Rights’ offices in Riyadh on Saturday afternoon, we were told officials were not available to speak with us.

So, along with around 10 other women and five children, we stood outside, raising placards that some of us were carrying. On them were the names of husbands detained without charge or trial for many years, including some who remain behind bars despite having served their sentence.

One police car was there when we arrived, but as soon as we took out the signs, two more pulled up. We heard security forces saying “they have placards with them”. Before we knew it we were surrounded by around 15 police cars.

An official from the National Society for Human Rights came out to speak to us. Around the same time, buses were brought in to the area, and more police cars showed up.

The security officers first targeted the most vulnerable amongst us – a woman who was carrying a walking stick.

They tried to take our placards by force, beating some of the women. As a result of the assault, one woman fell in a nearby hole. A 12-year-old boy, whose father has been detained without charge or trial for a decade, was beaten and had the placards he was carrying forced out of his hands. They threatened us all with arrest.

We started going from street to street to avoid having the placards taken from us. I was filming the whole thing, and I heard a police officer shout, “this one is taking pictures”. I ran but they followed me, so I appealed to people in their cars to help me. Two masked men in plain clothes from the General Directorate of Investigation got hold of me, and threw me to a female guard, who then threw me on one of the buses. They beat us and called us names.

In the bus they started closing the windows on us, and sped away with around 13 of us on board.

We were taken to the Criminal Investigation Department around 3pm. We were interrogated three times – by the Criminal Investigation Department, Criminal Evidence Unit, and the Bureau for Investigation and Public Prosecution. They all asked the same questions.

They took our fingerprints and a DNA sample, and asked us who we are, about our leader, how we co-ordinate our activities, if we have Twitter accounts.

“Don’t you know that protests are forbidden under Shari’a?” one of them asked me. I responded that it is not, that there are different opinions on this. I told them even their interrogation was wrong, since I didn’t have a lawyer present with me. He told me my choice was to continue without a lawyer or stay in prison. So I let them continue.

This whole time we had nothing to eat, despite having children with us. We pleaded with them for food, and eventually around midnight they said they couldn’t give us food since everywhere was closed. After that they brought some juice and one packet of crisps for us to share amongst the children.

Around 1.30am they released me, along with some of the women, leaving around four women and three children in custody. My stepdaughter Bahia and her 23-year-old daughter Fatima were among those left.

During the arrests, Fatima had fainted after suffering an asthma attack and only came to when water was poured on her face. After separating her from her mother, the police officers beat her and then dragged her onto the bus. Her abaya (long gown) was torn. One female guard sat on her and twisted her arm.

“I saw others being ill-treated and I did not know whether to cry for what was happening to me or for what was happening to the others,” Fatima later said.

Fatima’s mother, Bahia, is among three women still being detained in al-Malaz Prison – we have not been able to see them or speak to them. We have been told that they will be referred to the court, but we don’t know on what grounds.

Other protests

Amnesty International has also received reports that police in the town of Buraida, north of Riyadh, arrested at least 15 women and 10 children on Saturday after they protested outside the Board of Grievances, an administrative court that considers complaints against the state and public services.

One woman whose husband has been detained without charge or trial for several years, and who is said to be ill and urinating blood, told Amnesty International that they were beaten and dragged by security forces to be taken to prison. They were interrogated in prison but she refused to give more than her name and age without her lawyer being present. She said that another group of women were taken to the same prison following a protest. All have since been released without charge.

Amnesty International considers all those detained for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly to be prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.