Deaths Fuel Protest Movement in Restive Qatif

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 it was first 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.

Shia leaders say that the government policy of ignoring the demands of the minority worsened the situation in the region and raised sectarian tension in the country.

“The government do realize they have a serious problem,” said Jaafar al-Shayeb, a Shia leader and memeber of the local municipal council in Qatif. “People for many decades feel they have faced discrimination and marginalization.”

Al-Shayeb moved to the United States in 1978 for college then became a member of the Shia opposition movement in exile. He lived 13 years in the US before moving back to Saudi Arabia in 1993 after the late King Fahad negotiated a deal with the opposition to return home.

The opposition saw it as an opportunity to work on reform from within, al-Shayeb said.

Almost twenty years later after that deal, he sounded dejected and disappointed. There is still not a single Shia minister in government. There was only one Shia ambassador (Jameel al-Jishi, who served as ambassador to Iran between 1999-2002). Even below the rank of a minister, Shia remain largely shut out of senior government positions, said al-Shayeb.

The accumulated frustration in addition to the Arab Spring pushed young people in Qatif to the street.

“The government was hesitant to use violence at the beginning,” al-Shayeb said. “Then they decided to use violence because they had nothing to offer.”

The government never called protesters in the Eastern Province “protesters.” The term they usually use to describe protesters is “rioters.” The government also says that security forces only open fire in self-defense when attacked.

On October 3, 2011, the Interior Ministry claimed that “rioters” in Awwamiya used molotov cocktails and machine guns to attack security forces. Those actions were “motivated by a foreign country that attempts to destabilize the nation’s security, and this is considered a breach of sovereignty,” according to a statement released by the ministry.

The statement, like all the other statements made by the Interior Ministry, did not name the foreign country but it is widely understood to mean Iran.

On Monday November 21, 2011, a protest was planned in Qatif. Ahmed al-Aradi, 18, said he was on the ground that day helping to organize it. “It was a peaceful protest,” he said. “We called for the release of prisoners and for justice in Bahrain.” The neighboring island has been going through its own uprising, where the majority Shia population has been demanding reform from their Sunni rulers. Bahiya al-Aradi, a cousin of Ahmed’s, was the first woman to die in the Bahrain protests.

Ahmed was driving a motorcycle at the front of the protest when he was shot from behind. The bullet entered from his side, going through his trunk and damaging his lung, spleen and stomach. He needed 45 days in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) before he finally recovered. Asked to to lift his shirt for the reporter to see the wound, he at first shyly hesitated but then lifted the shirt slightly to reveal a series of scars.

Nasser al-Mheishi, 19, was shot dead in earlier in November. His death certificate says the cause of death is a “gunshot.” The next day, an angry rally erupted to protest his death. A 24-year-old named Ali al-Fulfill was shot in the chest. A video uploaded to YouTube showed medics desperately attempting to resuscitate him. He died. Two more people were killed in following protests.

The death of protesters fuel more protests, as it has become clearly known during the Arab uprisings in the months before. More protests took place in Qatif. The angry protesters were no longer just asking for the release of prisoners and reform. They started chanting slogans like “Death to Al Saud.” They wanted justice.

The government released another statement on November 24, again accusing protesters of using violence and serving a foreign agenda.

Salman al-Dosary, editor of a newspaper owned by members of the royal family, likened the protesters to al-Qaeda terrorists and warned against any attempt to label what is happening in Qatif anything besides terrorism.

“Those who justify for Qatif terrorists who raised their guns against the nation and its people are not all that different from those who justified for the terrorist actions of al-Qaeda,” he wrote in the financial daily al-Eqtisadiah, shortly after being named editor of the newspaper.

Al-Dosary, echoing the Interior Ministry’s statements, called on the “rational ones” in Qatif to take a stance against the protests, or the riots, as they preferred to call them.

Few days later, five prominent Shia clerics in Qatif, led by Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, released a brief statement.

“Demanding rights and lifting sectarian discrimination through peaceful means is a legitimate right for society, and we are confident that our dear sons and brothers refuse violence and the use of force and adhere to fruitful civilized methods,” the statement said. “Using violence is rejected and a grave danger.” The statement also called on the government to ensure that the security forces are exercising self-restraint.

That statement seemed to fall short of what the government probably wanted: an absolute condemnation of the protests. But it was extremely difficult for Shia leaders to condemn the protests after four of their own people were killed because doing so would simply mean losing all credibility in front of their constituency.

Young people in Qatif, like their peers across the region, were already losing faith in their leaders, including religious leaders like al-Saffar and the other four clerics who joined him in that statement.

Al-Saffar in particular was in a tough position. As the founder of the Islamic Reform Movement, he was one of the main leaders of the exiled Shia opposition in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Like al-Shayeb, he returned to the country after they reached a deal with King Fahad in 1993. Since then, he has played a mediating role between the government and the Shia community.

But that role has increasingly diminished in recent months as his moderate stance, telling protesters to keep it peaceful without directly supporting them while at the same time warning the government against the excessive use of force, won him no favors from neither side.

His influence on the young protesters has become minimal and he no longer had the government’s ear.

After one person was killed and several others wounded during a protest in early February 2012 he gave a Friday sermon in which he condemned the use of violence by protesters against security forces, but at the same time he condemned the security forces excessive use of force.

“Those are citizens, Muslims and humans,” he said. “Their souls are dear and their lives are precious. The state is responsible for their lives and blood.”

For the government, a statement like this one was unacceptable. The Interior Ministry had a strong response to al-Saffar’s sermon. An unnamed source at the ministry, said to be its official spokesman al-Turki, told the state news agency that security forces will confront the situation in Qatif “with determination and force and with an iron fist.”

Moderates like al-Saffar were needed no more, the government seemed to say. They threw him under the bus. The voices who called for reconciliation and engagement with the government have faded, giving way for voices less willing to talk nicely to the government, as the government has become less willing to talk with the Shia at all.

Sheikh Nemer al-Nemer, a cleric known for his fiery sermons and vehement criticism of the government, has become the spiritual leader for the young protesters. He did not simply support the protesters with powerful speeches from the pulpit of his mosque; he actually marched with protesters in the streets in Awwamiya as they chanted anti-government slogans.

If other Shia leaders in the past have chosen to engage with the government, the 53-year-old al-Nemer has always chosen confrontation. Authorities detained him for several days twice in 2004 and 2006.

When security forces clashed with Shia pilgrims in Madinah in February 2009, al-Nemer said in a Friday sermon that the “dignity of Shia is above the unity of this country,” a statement that was interpreted as a call for secession, and one that attracted criticism even from Shia activists.

Following the death of Saudi Crown Prince Naif last June, the firebrand al-Nemer gave a Friday sermon in which he responded to people who said “don’t speak ill of Naif because he is dead.” The late interior minister imprisoned and killed their children, al-Nemer said, so why shouldn’t the people in Qatif rejoice in his death?

“This is a man who spread fear and terror,” al-Nemer added. “Why shouldn’t we rejoice?”

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 8, 2012, al-Nemer was driving alone from a farm to his house in Awwamiya when security forces began chasing his car, according to his younger brother Mohammed. The short car chase ended after his car crashed into a wall. Security forces shot him in the leg and arrested him.

Two hours after the arrest, a video of Nemer al-Nemer with blood over his white thobe surfaced on Twitter. There was also another video, said to be taken by an officer who announces that “Nemer al-Nemer has been crushed today … his death for us, the Sunnis.”

Mohammed al-Nemer claims the videos were leaked by the Interior Ministery, “in clear violation of Islamic values and ethics as well as international standards.”

The government version of the story is quite different. The Saudi Press Agency reported:

The Interior Ministry said a “seditious instigator” in the Eastern Province town of Al-Awamiyah was arrested Sunday following a gun battle.

Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr and his followers opened fire on security officers who tried to arrest them at around 4 P.M. Sunday, said Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, security spokesman of the Ministry of Interior. They were arrested after the vehicle they were escaping in crashed into a patrol car, Al-Turki said.

He said Al-Nimr was wounded when officers responded to the gunfire. He was arrested and taken to hospital. Al-Nimr will be prosecuted on charges of sedition, Al-Turki added.

The security forces will not tolerate instigators of sedition and disorder who become tools in the hands of the enemies of the homeland,” he added.

Mohammed al-Nemer said his brother was alone and unarmed. “Let me say it loud and clear,” he said. “They are lying, they are lying, they are lying.”

Asked about the ministry’s accusation of Nemer al-Nemer of being a tool “in the hands of the enemies of the homeland,” another reference understood to mean Iran, Mohammed al-Nemer said his brother has no connection to Iran.

“Sheikh Nemer belongs to a different school of thought from Vilayat-e Faqih,” or Guardianship of the Jurist, the school of thought officially followed in Iran.

But Nemer al-Nemer has expressed sympathy for Iran before. He gave a Friday sermon in July 2008 where he talked about a possible war between the US and Iran, and said that Iran has the right to defend itself.

“They would definitely have the right to close the Straits of Hormuz, to destroy the Zionist entity and to hit American bases and its interests present all over the world,” he said, adding that “we stand by Iran and we will do everything to support this country.”

His brother Mohammed said this does not mean that Nemer is more loyal to Iran than Saudi Arabia. “The relationship of Nemer, and Shia in general, with Iran is an emotional one” and not necessarily political, he said. Saudi Arabia has some serious issues to tackle, he said. Iran should not be used as a distraction.

While the government has repeatedly framed the unrest in the east as isolated acts by a small minority motivated by outside parties, Shia activists say they consider themselves to belong to the national reform movement in the rest of the country calling for change.

“The several reform petitions authored in recent years had many Shia signatories,” said Waleed Sulais, an activist from Qatif. “Indeed, some of these petitions actually originated from the Shia.”

But Sulais admitted that such petitions where Shia and Sunni activists worked together to produce a common reformist message have had limited effect. Such efforts are almost exclusive to the elites and do not resonate with regular people on the street. For those people, it is issues like discrimination in jobs and indefinitely detaining their loved ones that drive them to protest.

And this is why Khaled al-Labad decided to protest, said his sister Ebtisam.

“We were surprised when we heard he was put on the wanted list,” she said, her black niqab covering her face except for a thin slit that revealed her eyes. “He went out to protest like the rest of the people. When he found out he was on the list he got angry.”

“‘I went out to demand my rights, they called me a terrorist’,” his sister quoted him as saying.

Abdullah Al Suraih is a friend of Khaled al-Labbad who was with him when he was killed.

“We were just sitting outside the house when an unmarked Ford stopped, a group of men in uniform got off the car and started shooting,” he said. “They did not give a warning.”

The government has a different account of the story. The Interior Ministry said they tracked down al-Labad to arrest him but “he and his companions opened fire on the security forces and, in dealing with the situation as it required, it resulted in the death of the wanted man,” according to an official statement.

Al-Labad was shot dead, along with two teenagers. Two other people were wounded. The three deaths bring to 15 the number of people killed in Qatif since last November

But Al Suraih did not know what happened to his friend until later. As soon as the bullets started flying, he ran for his life and did not look back. He, like al-Labad, is also wanted and his name appears on the list of 23 announced by the government 9 months ago.

Tattoos cover the arms of Al Suraih, a 19-year-old who dropped out of middle school and worked at the fish market. “Freedom,” read one of the large tattoos on his left arm. He said he does not plan to turn himself in. He said he would turn himself in to any government except the Saudi government.

“I don’t trust the Saudi government,” he said.