Saudi Interior Ministry Issues Warning Ahead of Women Driving Day

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Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior warned against “disturbing the public peace” ahead of a campaign organized by women activists to defy the ban on driving on October 26.

The statement released Wednesday and carried by the state news agency reads in full:

The security spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior issued a statement on rumors exchanged over social networks and some media outlets calling for congregations and marches against an alleged day of female driving. The laws of the Kingdom prohibit activities disturbing the public peace and opening venues to sedition which only serve the senseless, the ill-intentioned, intruders, and opportunity hunters, the statement said. The Ministry of Interior assures all, the statement added, the concerned bodies will fully and firmly enforce the laws against violators. At the same time, the Ministry values what many citizens have voiced concerning for the importance of keeping the peace, stability, and avoidance of what leads to disunity and stratification of society.

The vaguely worded statement appeared to have given both sides on the women driving debate a reason to celebrate.

On social media, opponents of the campaign tweeted under the hashtag “MOI statement represents me,” saying the statement sends a clear message against the calls for driving. Meanwhile, supporters of female driving said the statement is on their side as it does not explicitly say that it is banned for women to get behind the wheel.

To add to the confusion, the original Arabic text of the statement and its English translation seemed to say contradictory things. In the Arabic version, the Interior Ministry refers to “congregations and marches under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving.” The English translation published by the Saudi Press Agency that appears above says “congregations and marches against an alleged day of female driving.”

The statement by MOI comes only few hours after 150 conservative clerics went to the Royal Court to express their objection to what they called “Westernization” and “the conspiracy of women driving.”

There is no law that bans female driving, but authorities do not issue licenses to women. In recent weeks, several women have been driving their cars in different cities around the kingdom and publishing videos of themselves as they drove in support of the October 26 campaign. No arrests have been made.

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Saudi Man Shot Dead in Qatif As Security Forces Chased Two on Wanted List

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At least one man was shot dead and several injured on Thursday morning when Saudi security forces entered the town of Awwamiya in the Eastern Province to arrest two wanted men, local Shia news site Rasid said.

The site quoted activists who identified the man as Ahmed Ali al-Muslab, adding that he was shot after he tried to escape from security forces who attempted to arrest him.

Eyewitnesses told Rasid that security forces surrounded Awwamiya in order to arrest Mohammed al-Labbad and Fadhel al-Safwani, two activists who appear on a wanted list released by the Saudi government in January 2012 in connection with protests in Qatif.

The Ministry of Interior announced on Thursday afternoon that Hassan al-Mutlaq, who also appears on the list, has turned himself in to authorities. The Saudi state news agency quoted a security spokesman who said “the statutory procedures in these case will be applied.”

The eastern region of Qatif, home to Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, has witnessed intermittent clashes between security forces and protesters who rallied against what they say is discrimination by the government. Authorities deny that they discriminate against Shia citizens and describe the protests as isolated riots, accusing protesters of using violence and being involved in criminal activities.

Abbas al-Mazraa, another man on the wanted list, was arrested in late July.

UPDATE: According to Reuters, the “Saudi police denied any connection to the death of the young man and suggested it may be crime-linked.”

Saudi Activist Jailed Again After Brief Release

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Saudi activist Mohammed al-Bajady has been re-imprisoned few days after he was released. A nephew of the activist said on Twitter that authorities called him at an early hour on Wednesday and he was told to bring al-Bajady back to al-Hair prison where the activist was jailed for over two years until he was suddenly released last week.

The circumstances of that release remain unclear. On August 6 the activist was taken from his cell “with no prior notice and let go to the street” without any personal belongings, according to messages posted to his Twitter account yesterday. Al-Bajady, sentenced in April 2012 to 4 years in jail, was not informed if his release was final or temporary.

Saudi authorities sometimes allow prisoners to leave jail on temporary basis to see family during Eid or attend funerals of relatives. In such cases, guarantors of the prisoner, usually members of his family, must sign pledges promising to bring the prisoner back to jail when the temporary release is over.

Nine days after his release, the relatives of al-Bajady received calls from authorities asking them to bring him to al-Hair prison. “Someone said his Eid break was over,” his nephew Samer al-Bajady said on Twitter. “Others said he must come to sign some papers.” Samer added that the papers signed by the guarantors last week did not specify the period of the release and the activist was not informed of his status upon being freed.

Al-Bajady traveled from his hometown in Qassim to al-Hair prison in Riyadh on Wednesday, and he was accompanied by his nephew and two fellow activists. The companions were later told to leave and al-Bajady appears to have been re-imprisoned.

The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), of which al-Bajady is a founding member, released a statement condemning what they described as “harassment against its members in the prisons of Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister.”

“If the goal of suddenly releasing Mohammed al-Bajady then arresting him again is to break him psychologically or damage his morale, we affirm that this mission has failed,” ACPRA said. “Two and half years in al-Hair did not affect him, failed to remove the smile from his face and increased his popularity and people’s respect of him.”

Abdullah al-Hamed and Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, two founding members of ACPRA, were sentenced last March to lengthy jail sentenced and travel bans after being found guilty of crimes such as founding an unlicensed human rights organization, seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder, undermining national unity, breaking allegiance to the ruler, disobeying the ruler and questioning the integrity of officials. Following the sentences, other members of the organization were investigated, put on trial and jailed.

During his brief period of freedom that lasted for 9 days al-Bajady, a father of two, spent time with his family and received visitors from across the kingdom, including popular preacher Salman al-Oudah. The activist also used his Twitter account, now controlled by friend after the re-imprisonment, to talk about his jail experience and criticize the Saudi government.

“My daughter Lara asks me: ‘Dad, why do they imprison you’” al-Bajady said on August 8. “Does any of you have a good answer for this 10-year-old girl?”

Saudi Arrests Two Foreigners Linked to Al-Qaeda Suicidal Attacks Plot

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Saudi Arabia announced on Thursday arresting two foreigners allegedly linked to al-Qaeda, the state news agency said. Spokesman for the Ministry of Interior said the two men were arrested last week after “monitoring hatred and incitement messages on social media.”

MOI spokesman said preliminary investigation shows that the two suspects, one from Yemen and the other from Chad who has been previously deported from the kingdom and returned with a different passport, “exchanged information about imminent suicidal attacks in the region.”

The United States closed 22 embassies and consulates, mostly in the Middle East and including Saudi Arabia, in response to fears of an unspecified terrorist attack linked to al-Qaeda. The State Department also issued a global travel alert last Friday that will be in force until the end of August.

On July 25, the State Department issued a travel warning urging US citizens “to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudi spokesman said the computers and mobile phones found with the two suspects show that they have communicated with the “misguided group,” a term often used by the government to describe al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The spokesman added that the suspects used encrypted email and listed a number of social media accounts allegedly used by them.

Saudi Security Forces Arrest Wanted Man in Qatif

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Saudi security forces arrested a wanted man following an exchange of fire for allegedly taking part in protests in the Eastern Province, the Interior Ministry spokesman said on Monday.

The spokesman told the state news agency that security forces moved to arrest the wanted man Abbas al-Mazraa “after receiving information about the whereabouts of him and 8 other men accused of drug trafficking in a house in Awwamiya, where they were raided and arrested.”

Security forces came under heavy fire to prevent them from arresting the wanted men, the spokesman said, but there have been no injuries.

Al-Mazraa’s name appeared on a list of 23 wanted persons by the government in connection to protest demonstrations in Qatif, eastern Saudi Arabia. In the statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency the spokesman urged the remaining suspects on the same list to “quickly hand themselves over to security bodies.”

Local news site Rasid said the raid has resulted in a blaze that brunt down the house where the man was arrested with some of his brothers. Al-Mazraa’s mother and sisters were briefly detained, according to unnamed sources cited by the site. The raid also damaged cars parked in the street and neighboring offices, Rasid said.

Qatif has been rocked by sporadic violence since March 2011 as residents from the Shia minority clashed with security forces to protest what they say is discrimination by the Saudi government. Saudi authorities deny that they discriminate against Shia citizens and describe the protests as isolated riots.

Morsi Al Rabah, another man on the list of 23, was killed last month.

Saudi Rights Group Criticizes Arrests of Islamists

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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:

Saudi Arabia Bans Import of V for Vendetta Masks

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Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif has ordered to confiscate and ban the importation of the V for Vendetta/Guy Fawkes masks, al-Madina daily reported on Thursday. The Ministry of Commerce will confiscate the mask from stores across the country and importers have been told to stop bringing the mask to the Saudi market.

The mask has come to represent a universal symbol of protest, and it has been worn by protesters in the Middle East as well as the Occupy movement. In November 2012, the UAE declared the mask illegal and have warned against people wearing them. Earlier this year Bahrain announced that anyone caught importing the mask faces arrest, according to the Independent.

The Saudi Interior Minister’s order comes few days after the Ministry of Islamic Affairs warned young people against wearing the mask. “The Ministry noted that this mask is a symbol of rebels and revenge, and is being promoted on the internet,” al-Madina reported earlier this week. The Ministry told mosque imams and parents to warn against “these foreign things to our conservative society” because “they could be used to incite the youth to destabilize security and spread chaos…”

The mask is a stylized interpretation of Guy Fawkes, a member of a group of subversives who took part in an attempt to assassinate King James I in a failed 1605 plot that has become known as the “Gunpowder Plot.” It first became popular after the release of the 2005 film V For Vendetta, which was inspired by a graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd.

Lloyd told the BBC News Magazine in October 2011 that “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny.”

Photo courtesy of Benoit Perrot via Flickr