Saudi journalist, accused of un-Islamic writings, is freed

New York, April 20, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the release of Saudi journalist Rabah al-Quwai’, who was held for 13 days in retaliation for his writings about religious extremism.

Al-Quwai’, a writer for the daily Shams, said he was compelled to sign a statement saying that he had denigrated Islamic beliefs in his writing, that he was not a true Muslim, and that he would defend Islamic values in his future work. Had he not signed the statement, al-Quwai’ said, he would have faced a charge of riddah—a renunciation of Islam—which is punishable by death. Al-Quwai’ was freed on Saturday.

Ha’il police summoned al-Quwai’ on April 3 on the pretext that he needed to fill out paperwork related to threats the journalist reported receiving in 2005. Al-Quwai’ said he was transferred to the Department of Investigation and Public Prosecution, where he was interrogated twice, each time for six hours. His lawyer, Abdelrahman al-Lahem, was denied access to al-Quwai’s files and was not allowed to meet his client.

Al-Quwai’ was released after he appeared before the Ha’il provincial governor, Prince Saud bin Abdelmuhsin bin Abdelaziz. Al-Quwai’ was barred from leaving the country.

The journalist said he was threatened last November, when the windshield of his car was smashed and a letter was left that said, “First time your car, next time you. Go back to your religion and leave these fictions behind. This is the last warning.”

In his writings, al-Quwai’ warned that religious extremism would lead to a September 11-type attack in Riyadh and criticized the strict religious interpretations of hard-line Wahabbi Islamists. The journalist has received several other threats from suspected religious extremists. The articles being questioned had been published on the Internet three years ago, al-Quwai’ told CPJ.

“While we’re glad that our colleague has been freed, the coercive circumstances of his release are alarming,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Saudi officials must allow him to continue his work without further persecution.”

Since September 11, 2001, Saudi Arabia’s government has loosened the shackles on the domestic press and local journalists have seized the initiative to produce more daring reports on crime, drug trafficking, unemployment, and religious extremism. Under pressure from religious authorities, however, the government frequently reins in criticism by banning newspapers, blacklisting writers, and pressuring journalists behind the scenes.