A senior Saudi official for the first time today elaborated on why a popular Saudi blogger – released Saturday from detention – was held without charges for more than four months.
"We have ... what we call electronic crimes – any kind of violation related to computer and technology and so on," Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Mansour Al Turki told the Monitor when asked why Fouad Farhan had been jailed.
"And I believe his main case was like violating personal rights.... Like when I go for example on the Internet or I go on any electronic media and I use your name and your personality and I criticize ... or offend you without being able to introduce evidence of what I'm saying."
Mr. Turki's comments were the first time that any Saudi official had gone beyond the vague official explanation that Mr. Farhan's detention stemmed from his alleged violation of rules unrelated to state security.
Farhan's Arabic-language blog, which has been shut down since early April, had become a must-read for many young Saudis. Like many bloggers in the country, Farhan took advantage of the expanding space for free speech under King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to call for political reforms. His arrest on Dec. 10 – the first known one of a Saudi blogger – sent tremors throughout the nation's vibrant blogging community.
Farhan had been an outspoken supporter of a group of activists based in the Saudi city of Jeddah who were detained after calling for political reform. They also were critical of the US occupation of Iraq.
According to a report in The Washington Post, he also had posted on his blog a list of what he termed his 10 least favorite Saudi leaders in early December, shortly before his arrest. The list included a prince, a cabinet minister, a religious cleric, a mayor, and the head of the judiciary.
In a Monitor interview hours after his release early Saturday, Farhan – a father of two – called his detention "an experience" but said that he had not been abused during his detention and was "treated fairly, like any other prisoner in jail."
The blogger, who runs his own computer programming company in Jeddah, added that he wanted "to thank some people" working in the Saudi prison system because, he said, "I think there [are] some reforms and good things going on in jail for young people and kids."
Farhan declined to discuss why he had been held, saying that "if I have something to say, I will say it on my blog." He intends to go back to blogging, but is not sure when.
Interior Ministry spokesman Turki said that he had not yet seen the formal report on "the conditions of [Farhan's] release." He added that, in general terms, a person's release does not necessarily mean that they will not face prosecution in court. Rather, it simply means that the investigation into their alleged crimes is over.
Ahmed al-Omran, a Riyadh university student who runs the blog Saudi Jeans, says he is "relieved" about his friend's release.
"I'm glad he's finally out," says Mr. Omran. "I thought he would be held longer, especially after they blocked his site."
Farhan's blog (www.alfarhan.org) has been blocked by Saudi censors since early April. A "Free Fouad" blog, www.freefouad.com, that was started by Farhan's friends after his detention, is also blocked.
Omran added that Farhan's release is "good news for the blogging community" which had "stood behind him and his right to free speech."
But the blogger was cautious about whether this latest development means Saudi bloggers can now rest easier about freely speaking their minds online, saying that that "remains to be seen."
Dammam-based Khalid al-Dossary, who blogs at www.mashi97.com, says he hopes that Farhan's release "will be a new page for freedom in Saudi Arabia. I hope it's the last time any blogger will be in any jail."