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Saudi Arabia announces al Qaeda arrests

  • Story Highlights
  • 44 al Qaeda suspects arrested in past year, Saudi Arabia says
  • Al Qaeda launched wave of terror attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003
  • Amnesty accuses Saudi Arabia of human rights violations over anti-terror campaign
  • Human rights group says up to 3,000 detained without charges
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(CNN) -- Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has arrested 44 al Qaeda suspects across the country, the Saudi interior ministry announced on Wednesday.

The suspects were part of a "network that was trying to build up al Qaeda in the kingdom this past year," ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told CNN.

He did not provide details on whether the suspects were planning a specific attack or what information led to their arrests.

Last month, Amnesty International issued a report saying that Saudi Arabia's campaign against the al Qaeda terrorist network has led to "massive human rights violations" by security forces, including torture and the arrests of non-violent reformists.

Amnesty estimated about 3,000 people are being held without charges, sometimes for years and without access to lawyers, after being swept up in a clampdown that began in 2003.

Neither Saudi officials in Riyadh nor at the kingdom's embassy in London, England, would respond to requests for comment on the report. But one Saudi source told CNN the report was flawed, and that the results of the crackdown speak for themselves.

Al Qaeda launched a wave of attacks on government buildings, oil installations and international contractors in Saudi Arabia in 2003. The Islamic fundamentalist movement supports the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and carried out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the kingdom's leading ally.

The Saudis responded with thousands of arrests and in some cases, fought gun battles with militants in Riyadh and other cities.

The last major attack in Saudi Arabia took place in 2005. In early July, the Saudis announced that 323 people had been convicted and seven acquitted after trials that were closed to observers. Those convicted will serve prison terms ranging from a few months to 30 years, the official Saudi Press Agency announced.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has taken tentative steps to liberalize the country since coming to power in 2005, including establishing human rights commissions that work with international agencies, and barring detention without trial for more than six months.

But those efforts "have been totally undermined by the harsh measures of fighting terrorism," said Lamri Chirouf, an Amnesty International researcher and the lead author of the report.

In many cases, he said, those arrested appear to have been targeted for their criticism of the government -- including reformist blogger Fouad al-Farhan, who was jailed in late 2007. Amnesty said its information suggests al-Farhan was arrested for blogging about Saudi reformers who themselves were jailed without charge.

Al-Farhan was released without explanation in April 2008, after five months in custody. At the time, al-Turki said the case "is not related to the government, is not related to the Ministry of the Interior or to the police or to the security situation."

CNN's Nic Robertson and Mohammed Jamjoom contributed to this report.

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