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No freedom for 'dean of Saudi bloggers'

  • Story Highlights
  • Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan remains jailed after nearly three months
  • "He is still being investigated," Saudi official says
  • Fellow blogger asks, "Why is he still being held?"
  • Al-Farhan has reportedly been held in solitary confinement
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By Nic Robertson and Wayne Drash
CNN
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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- A top Saudi blogger who was jailed late last year remains in prison more than two months later for unspecified, non-security matters -- and there are few signs that he will be freed anytime soon.

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Web sites like this one are pushing for Fouad al-Farhan's freedom.

The Saudi government has been extremely quiet about the detention of Fouad al-Farhan, a 32-year-old father of two who has become a rallying cry for bloggers.

Al-Farhan -- known on the Internet as the "Dean of Saudi Bloggers" -- was arrested on December 10 shortly after one of his blog entries was critical of influential Saudi religious, business and media figures.

"He is still being investigated," Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, told CNN this week.

Al-Farhan has yet to be charged with a crime, but under Saudi law can be held without charges for six months.

He has only had one visit since being jailed when he told his father-in-law he was being held in solitary confinement, according to Ebtihal Mubarak, an Arab News journalist who has been in close contact with his family.

Fellow Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran has been leading the charge in Saudi Arabia to free him. He says more than 1,000 people are now campaigning inside and outside the Saudi kingdom for al-Farhan's freedom.

"His case is not related to the government, is not related to the Ministry of Interior or to the police or to the security situation," al-Omran says, referring to comments by Saudi authorities in a CNN report in January. "So if that's the case, why is he still being held? Why has he not been charged?"

Several "Free Fouad" Web sites have popped up online and a group with the same name boasts more than 900 members on the popular online social networking site, Facebook.

"Free Fouad or charge him," one message posted by a man named Fareed Hadeed in Saudi Arabia says on the Facebook page.

Joel Campagna, the Mideast program coordinator for the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, says his organization hasn't seen any positive signs from the kingdom about al-Farhan's possible release. CPJ has lobbied King Abdullah and the Bush administration on al-Farhan's behalf.

"To hold a blogger for over two months in secrecy is shameful and I think it's a fresh reminder of the shoddy state of media freedom in Saudi Arabia," Campagna says.

Saudi authorities in recent months, he says, have rolled back "modest gains" in the media that were welcomed inside and outside Saudi Arabia as giving much-needed hope to the rapidly growing young population. He says it undermines King Abdullah's public statements about being committed to gradual reform. Video Watch one woman's fight for Saudi journalism »

"I think it shows that this is just empty talk," Campagna says. "We're very concerned. Fouad al-Farhan should be released immediately."

Al-Omran says the case has had a wide influence on his fellow bloggers. He says some have quit, while others have "become more careful."

Still others, he says, "say they can't be silenced."

How has it affected him?

"My family worries about me and I am concerned, but you have to do what you can do," al-Omran says.

The Saudi Human Rights Commission has been trying to get access to visit him, but so far has not been allowed.

Al-Farhan has been held for almost 80 days. Under Saudi law, he cannot be held in solitary confinement for more than 60 days. It's not immediately clear if Saudi authorities have abided by that law.

A recent report by Arab News' Mubarak said al-Farhan was allowed to make a phone call home on February 12. The report quoted his wife as saying, "He talked to his mother briefly over the phone assuring her that he is all right and that he is not being harassed."

Early last month, the U.S. State Department said it had brought its concerns about the detention to the Saudi government at a "relatively senior level." At the time, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the message was "pretty clear."

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According to the CPJ, al-Farhan sent an e-mail to friends just before he was arrested, saying he thought he was being taken into custody because "I wrote about the political prisoners here in Saudi Arabia and they think I'm running an online campaign promoting their issue."

His blog's slogan is: "Searching for freedom, dignity, justice, equality, public participation, and all the rest of lost Islamic values, and for Raghad and Khetab" -- a reference to his two children. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Saudi ArabiaBlogs and BloggingSaudi Arabian Ministry of the Interior

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