Saudi Arabian bloggers rattled by first arrest of online critic

The arrest of Fouad al-Farhan, one of the few bloggers to use his own name, may be an attempt to intimidate others.

By , Washington Post

Saudi Arabia's most popular blogger, Fouad al-Farhan, has been detained for questioning, an Interior Ministry spokesman confirmed Monday. It was the first known arrest of an online critic in the kingdom.

Mr. Farhan, 32, who used his blog to criticize corruption and call for political reform, was detained "for violating rules not related to state security," according to the spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, responding to repeated requests for comment with a brief cellphone text message.

Farhan's Dec. 10 arrest was reported last week on the Internet and has been condemned by bloggers in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Bahrain. The Saudi news media have not yet reported the arrest, but more than 200 bloggers in the kingdom have criticized Farhan's detention, and a group of supporters have set up a Free Fouad website.

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Farhan, who was educated in the United States and owns a computer programming company, was arrested at his office in Jeddah. He was then brought home, where his laptop was confiscated, said his wife, who spoke on condition that her name not be published to protect her privacy.

"They arrested him because of his blog. I haven't seen him since. We don't know where he is," she said.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that restricts press and speech freedoms, does not allow political parties, civil rights groups, or public gatherings. But since King Abdullah took the throne in 2005, official tolerance of criticism and debate has grown.

Even so, Farhan told The Washington Post and others in early December that an Interior Ministry official had warned him that he would be detained because of his online support for a group of men arrested in February and held without charge or trial.

At the time of their arrest, the government accused the Jeddah-based group, made up of a former judge, academics, and businessmen, of supporting terrorism. The men's attorney, Bassim Alim, had said they were arrested for their political activism and their plans to form a civil rights group.

Farhan's friends have maintained his blog during his detention and posted on it an e-mail he had written to a friend shortly before his arrest.

In that e-mail, Farhan wrote that he was told he would be released if he signed an apology for his activism. "I'm not sure if I'm ready to do that. An apology for what? Apologizing because I said the government lied when they accused those guys of supporting terrorism?"

In October, Farhan visited one of the jailed men and wrote about it on his blog, www.alfarhan.org.

He also posted an emotional taped appeal from the mother of one of the men, academic Saud Mokhtar al-Hashemi, and asked readers to call the men's families and offer their support.

Unlike most of the thousands of men and women who blog in the kingdom, on topics from fashion to corruption, Farhan uses his real name. In a post in December, Farhan listed his 10 least favorite Saudi personalities, including a businessman prince, a prominent cleric, a minister, a mayor, and the head of the judiciary.

Farhan's arrest could either scare other bloggers from criticizing the government or create a backlash, said Ahmed al-Omran, 23, who blogs as Saudi Jeans.

"I think some people will be afraid now, especially those who use their real name – they will be more careful. A lot of bloggers will be intimidated. But it could also cause a backlash in the blogosphere, and spur bloggers to write even harsher criticisms," Mr. Omran said.

Farhan has had trouble with the authorities before. In 2006 he was told by the Interior Ministry to tone down his blog and to dissolve an association he was forming to protect bloggers' rights.

He dissolved the group and quit blogging for nine months because of his business interests, he said subsequently. But he went back to blogging, even more critically in July.

Farhan's arrest is the first of a blogger in Saudi Arabia.

Two Egyptian bloggers and one Tunisian are currently behind bars, according to Sami ben Gharbia, advocacy director for Global Voices, an international research group focused on the Internet and founded at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

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