Facebook boosts participation in rare Saudi hunger strike

The two-day protest, publicized on Facebook, drew 60 fasters and 800 online comments.

The government studiously ignored a two-day hunger strike staged last week by Saudi human rights activists, but organizers said they were pleased with the participation and media attention that their protest drew.

"They ignored us," hunger striker Fowzan Mohsin Al Harbi said of the authorities. "But we achieved our goal, the hunger strike was all over the world in the media."

The 48-hour fast on Nov. 6-7, reported in the Monitor last Wednesday, is believed to be the first of its kind in the kingdom. It was organized by 13 individuals to protest the extended detention of 11 men who had called for political reforms.

The most prominent detainee is Matrouq Al Faleh, a human rights activist and political science professor seized at King Saud University last May after criticizing prison conditions.

About 70 hunger strikers fasted in their own homes in order not to run afoul of a ban on unauthorized gatherings, said another organizer, professor of economics, Mohammad Fahd Al Qahtani.

The group publicized its plans on Facebook.com, where almost 60 people added their names to the initial 13 protesters, publicly committing to join the hunger strike.

The Facebook discussion group also drew more than 800 comments in English and Arabic.

Qahtani said the activists want "to use this new concept of peaceful civic protest to demonstrate for our rights."

In order to make sure others don't end up in "the dungeon system of Saudi Arabia," he added, they plan to stage further actions. "We're not going to go away.... Keep watching."

Though the local, government-directed press has begun to address human rights violations more aggressively than before, it did not cover the hunger strike.

Qahtani, however, was interviewed on Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite television station that likes to demonstrate its independence from official circles.

The other detainees who were the focus of the protest include an activist from Jouf detained in December, and nine residents of Jeddah arrested in February 2007.

Law enforcement authorities said the Jeddah men had been involved in illicit funding of militant networks. But they were mostly known for advocating political reform, and so far none have been publicly charged.

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