'Dean of Saudi bloggers' released



 
Saudi blogger Fouad Al-Farhan was set free over the weekend without charges after spending almost five months in a Jeddah prison.
 
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
 Saudi Fouad al-Farhan
Fouad Al-Farhan, center, speaks at a meeting of Saudi bloggers in 2007. Ahmed Al-Omran, aka Saudijeans, is seen in front. © Faiza Saleh Ambah

BEIRUT/JEDDAH (MENASSAT) – Fouad Al-Farhan reportedly walked out of Dahban prison in Jeddah at 5.30 am on Saturday morning and was reunited with his family shortly thereafter.

Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran, who moderates the popular Saudijeans blog, told MENASSAT that Al-Farhan was in good condition.

"I talked to him briefly on Saturday. He told me he was doing fine and referred to his time in prison as a unique experience. He said that he had been treated fairly," Al-Omran said.

The arrest of the 32-year-old father of two on December 10, 2007 for allegedly "violating the Kingdom's regulations" marked the first time the Saudi authorities detained a cyber-dissident. 

The arrest came shortly after Al-Farhan posted comments on his blog alfarhan.org in support of a group of men who had been arrested on terrorist suspicions. Al-Farhan suggested that these men were not terrorists but academics seeking to promote democracy in a country that quashes press freedom.

Al-Farhan is considered the dean of the Saudi blogosphere; he was one of the first bloggers in the Kingdom to write under his real name. He advocated the need for reform and democracy in Saudi Arabia, emphasizing the "search for freedom, dignity, justice, equality, public participation and other lost Islamic values" in his online mission statement.

Prior to his arrest, the blogger claimed that members of the Saudi government had asked him to be more cautious with his language in his blog posts.

Al-Farhan also wrote a note to his friends, telling them he was under investigation.

"I was told that there is an official order from a high-ranking official in the Ministry of the Interior to investigate me. They will pick me up anytime during the next two weeks," he wrote.

Online support

While Al-Farhan was in detainment in Jeddah, his friends and fellow bloggers kept his case alive on the Internet by maintaining his blog in his absence and launching the online support campaign, Free Fouad. A group dedicated to Al-Farhan on the social networking site Facebook attracted over 1,000 members. 

On April 3, the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission allegedly blocked access to Al-Farhan's web log along with the Free Fouad website and another website that advocated his release.

Throughout Al-Farhan’s imprisonment, little has been heard from the Saudi authorities except that the blogger's arrest was not security-related. Neither has the national government confirmed his arrest nor his release.

On Monday, however, Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmed lashed out at mass media, accusing it of "exaggerating" the case of Al-Farhan. Prince Ahmed said the blogger had been arrested for a "mistake" he had committed – while still refusing to confirm his release.

"The issue [of Al-Farhan] was not that important as it represented the mistake committed by a person on himself. A man who commits a mistake should bear its result," the prince told the Saudi Press Agency.

Meanwhile, Al-Farhan's wife spoke to Arab News two days earlier, saying that her husband had indeed been set free. 

According to Ahmed Al-Omran, who has been in touch with Al-Farhan, he does not intend to give up blogging.

"He told me would certainly blog again but he needs some time off first," Al-Farhan said.

Rights groups have welcomed Al-Farhan's release. Cairo-based HRInfo expressed "happiness for his freedom" while urging the Saudi authorities to unblock his blog and reveal the reasons behind the detainment.

Saudi Arabia is known as an avid practitioner of Internet censorship with an estimated 400,000 blocked websites.  As a result, Paris-based press group Reporters Without Borders has crowned the desert kingdom as one of the world's "Internet enemies."