Saudi Rights Group Criticizes Arrests of Islamists

The Saudi National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) expressed concern over reports of arresting an Islamist activist and a popular cleric, local news site Sabq reported on Sunday. Activist Mohsen al-Awaji and cleric Mohammad al-Arefi are said to have been arrested last week.

“If reports on social media sites about the arrests of Dr. Mohsen al-Awaji and Sheikh Mohammad al-Arefi are accurate, and that it is related to positions they have expressed about current events, then this violates Saudi commitments to human rights stated in regional and international accords,” said NSHR spokesman Saleh al-Khathlan in a statement quoted by Sabq.

The government has not made any statements about al-Awaji or al-Arefi, and the circumstances of their arrests remain unclear. Saad al-Arefi, brother of the cleric, said on Twitter it is “inaccurate” to describe what happened to his brother Mohammad as an arrest. “He is on a mission that will end soon, and is in constant contact with his family,” Saad said.

However, London-based Saudi site Elaph cited unnamed sources close to al-Arefi who confirmed that he has been arrested and banned from leaving the country. The same applies to al-Awaji, the site said.

The controversial al-Arefi is a popular preacher, especially among Saudi youth, and he boasts more than 5 million followers on Twitter. His last tweet was posted ten minutes after midnight on July 21.

Observers said Al-Arefi’s arrest could be related to a passionate speech he gave in Cairo last month where he called for jihad in Syria. Although, the Saudi government has been actively supporting the Syrian opposition aiming to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, authorities here have warned against encouraging youth to join the fight in Syria.

King Abdullah said in April that those who mislead the youth deserve severe punishment. Few weeks later Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Alsheikh described the calls for jihad in Syria as a “betrayal against the state,” according to al-Watan daily.

Al-Arefi was scheduled to give a speech in Doha, Qatar on Friday. Journalist Abdul-Elah al-Qahtani said on Twitter the preacher has told the organizers that he has been banned from travel. The Qatari organizers confirmed on Friday afternoon that al-Arefi will not make it to the event.

As for Mohsen al-Awaji, his arrest came few days after he criticized the government domestic and foreign policy during a television interview on the conservative al-Majd channel. Al-Awaji was also one of the lead signatories on a statement published on July 10 expressing support to overthrown Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and calling on protesters in Rabaa al-Adawiya to stand their ground until “stolen legitimacy is restored.”

UPDATE: Al-Awaji’s newphew tweeted early Monday that his uncle has been released:

UPDATE 2: Preacher Mohammed al-Arefi has been released too, according to his brother: