Saudi activist who inspired rare hunger strike freed

The professor had been arrested after publishing a critical report.

Saudi authorities have released a prominent political activist whose extended detention without charges helped spark a rare hunger strike by scores of Saudis last November.

Matrouq al-Faleh, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, was freed Saturday night after being jailed for eight months, according to his wife, Jamila al-Uqla.

"He's doing very well," says Mohammad al-Qahtani, one of the hunger strikers, who visited Mr. Faleh at his home. "This is his first day to see the sun in eight months."

Ms. Uqla says her husband's health is good, but declined to have him come to the phone to speak with a reporter.

Political detainees often face travel and other restrictions upon their release. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry says he had no information about what, if any, restrictions were imposed on Faleh.

He was one of 11 political detainees whose extended jailing was the focus of the unusual hunger strike by more than 70 people in early November.

Participants in the protest action declared their commitment online to fast for two days. They stayed home during the strike to not violate a government ban on unauthorized public assemblies.

Initially, they advertised their protest at, and later on Facebook, where it eventually drew more than 800 mostly supportive comments.

The hunger strike passed without incident, but also without any coverage in the local press. The protest, however, drew attention from the international media.

Public protests and demonstrations are rare in the kingdom, where King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz rules by consensus, but has the final word in most matters.

In an interview Monday, the president of the government-appointed Human Rights Commission, Turki K. al-Sudairy, welcomed Faleh's release and said he believed that the nine remaining detainees still held would be released "soon."

Since the November hunger strike, two other detainees besides Falehhave been released. Another was freed some months ago because ofillness. And according to human rights activist and hunger striker Mr.Qahtani, prison conditions lately have improved for the seven stillheld.

The seven, all from Jeddah, have been jailed sinceFebruary 2007. Law enforcement authorities say they had been involvedin illicit funding of militant networks. None has been publiclycharged.[ Editor's note: The previous three paragraphs have been updated to reflect information received shortly after publication.]

Faleh was among the better-known of the detainees. In 2004, he was jailed after helping organize a petition demanding that Saudi Arabia become a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. He was freed in 2005, following a pardon from King Abdullah.

His arrest last May came days after he published online a highly critical report on prison conditions in Qassim Province.

After his arrest, 137 Saudi academics, lawyers, businessmen, and physicians signed a petition to the king that called Faleh's detention a "step backward" in light of the monarch's "forward-thinking" policies. They asked for him to be released or brought to trial.

His release "is really good news for everyone who loves freedom," says Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, a human rights activist in Dammam.

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