From the internet to prison: Arab bloggers face high risks

Other News Materials 15 March 2008 06:36 (UTC +04:00)

( dpa )- Fuad al-Farhan, 32, from Saudi Arabia has been in jail for more than three months. The owner of a small IT company in the port city of Jeddah, was arrested on December 10 without formal charges being filed against him.

He is one of a generation of sidelined journalists as well as opposition and human rights activists who are producing internet blogs to avoid tight media controls in the Saudi kingdom.

However, controls and restrictions are to be felt even in the Arab online world, and exceeding these limits can take bloggers from the internet straight into prison.

Al-Farhan believes that he was arrested because of comments he made online about the situation of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia.

Another risky undertaking was a list "The 10 most prominent Saudi personalities I do not like and don't want to meet," which he published shortly before his arrest. In the list, the blogger named billionaire Prince Walid bin Talal and influential Muslim scholars amongst others.

Last week, al-Farhan's wife received a phone call from her husband for the first time since his arrest.

"I hope that I can visit him in prison soon," she told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. Speaking in a strong voice, she said she did not want to see her name or photo published even though she is actively fighting for her husband's release.

Equally, she does not want to speak face-to-face to reporters or human rights activists and prefers to answer their questions via telephone. Her reservations are not unusual in the conservative kingdom where most women are fully veiled in public.

The children of the al-Farhan family have taken on the role of spokespeople for their father: "Dad, please come home, we miss you," his 10-year-old daughter Raghad said in a video clip which was published this week on www.YouTube.com.

Arab bloggers under arrest are not only supported by their families, friends and international activist organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch.

Their case is also taken up by many other bloggers between Rabat and Damascus: Many internet authors features calls for the release of al-Farhan on their websites.

And there is similar online support, for example, for a detained Syrian or for 23-year-old Egyptian Karim Amer, a student who was sentenced to four years in prison in February 2007. The judge in his trial ruled that he had insulted Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak and the Islamic al-Azhar University in his blog.

A different campaign - "Free Tariq" - for the release of the 22- year-old Syrian Tariq Biasi was stopped at the request of his family and lawyers, due to the beginning of the trial against Biasi for allegedly publishing a commentary critical of Syrian security forces.

His supporters want to avoid an even harsher verdict against the young man who is charged with "damaging patriotism" and "spreading wrong information."

The maximum sentence for these crimes is five years, and Biasi's trial is due to continue next Monday.