Saudi authorities continued with a third day of detentions Wednesday with the arrest of lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, as defiant activists called for the release of all those arrested.
The sudden and sweeping detention of democratic activists comes at a time when Saudi Arabia has taken steps towards political reforms, allowing a freer and more critical press, announcing the first municipal elections in October, and setting up a human rights organization earlier this month.
"It's an extraordinary step backward in respect to the several moves forward they've taken," says a senior US government official.
"This is a surprise. These men [who were detained] had met with Crown Prince Abdullah and [Interior Minister] Prince Nayef and had open and pleasant discussions about reforms," says writer and activist Turki al-Hamad.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia has come under pressure from the United States to implement democratic reforms, which Washington sees as a deterrent to extremism and intolerance. The first widespread detentions since political freedoms became a pressing topic in Saudi Arabia following the Sept. 11 attacks are a blow to the country's reform movement, analysts say.
The arrests are an attempt by the government to put a brake on the country's burgeoning reform movement and to show that they control it, says Saudi writer Tawfiq al-Saif.
"This is a message from the authorities that says, 'no one can impose demands on us.' We decide ourselves on the pace and scope of the reforms, and no one else should interfere," says Mr. Saif.
The trigger for the arrests, he says, was a letter sent several weeks ago to the Saudi crown prince informing him of the group's intention to set up an independent human rights organization.
The group had defied a ban on public gatherings and decided at a meeting of more than 30 Saudis at a Riyadh hotel last month that it was time to stop talking, says Saif, who was in close touch with them. "We had written many petitions and it was decided that we should move into the next phase of taking action," he says.
The sweep of arrests started Monday night in the port city of Jiddah, followed by arrests Tuesday in the capital, Riyadh, and the Eastern Province. Those arrested include several university professors, a lawyer, a poet, and a number of writers who were picked up from either their homes or their workplaces, according to family members.
A statement by the Interior Ministry late Monday confirmed the arrests but did not give details. The men were "detained for questioning regarding petitions they issued which do not serve the country's unity and the cohesion of society based on Islamic law," the statement said.
Reformists in Saudi Arabia have been increasingly active over the past year, sending five petitions to the government demanding wide-ranging political and economic reforms. In a petition signed in December, 116 people sought the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a constitutional monarchy. Last month more than 800 people, including more than 100 women, asked for an elected parliament and a greater role for women.
Political parties and political gatherings are not allowed in Saudi Arabia, and women are not allowed to work alongside men, travel without permission of a male guardian, drive a car, or appear in public unveiled.
Activists also want more transparency and accountability from the royal family, whose members control the country's purse strings and hold major government posts.
The efforts in Saudi Arabia take place against the backdrop of the recently launched US "Greater Middle East Initiative." Washington is calling for major economic and political reforms. But it has met with resistance from Arab leaders in the region. Thursday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to visit Kuwait, and told Reuters that he's looking forward to "a dialogue over...the issues of reform in Kuwait, the Arab world and the Middle East." Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah said on Tuesday that he backed political reforms in the Middle East but any changes should be homegrown and not dictated from outside.
Mr. Tayeb, Mr. Faleh, and Hamid, who have been spearheading the movement calling for faster and greater reforms, have all been previously detained for their political activism - but this was the first time the government has moved against them in recent years.
Mr. Lahem was called in for questioning after he appeared on Al Jazeera satellite television and criticized as illegal the arrest of some of the country's top political activists, he told the Monitor by cellphone on his way to the Saudi security offices.
There were reports of the release of four activists Wednesday, but the reformist leaders, lawyer and publisher Mohammad Saeed Tayeb and academics Matrouk al-Faleh and Abdullah al-Hamed were still behind bars at press time. The exact number of detainees could not be verified, but reformists say that a total of 11 people have been arrested.
Meanwhile activists were gathering signatures for a petition to the country's newly formed, government-appointed human rights group asking for their intervention. They also requested a meeting with the country's defacto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, and Prince Nayef, to ask for the release of the detainees, says Saudi writer Abdullah al-Sharif, who is involved with the petition and the request for the royal audience.
"If the human rights group is serious, they have to prove themselves now," says Mr. Sharif.
An officer at the Interior Ministry called Tayeb Monday night and told him he was wanted for questioning before sending a car several minutes later, his wife Faiga Badr says. Tayeb "called me at two in the morning and told me to be strong and he asked me to pack a small bag for him with his medicine and clothes," Mrs. Badr says. "Tuesday he called and asked me to send him lunch. I haven't heard from him since," she says.
• Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Washington.