Hunger strikers protest detention of dissidents

More than 70 Saudis spent Thursday without food or water to protest the detention without trial of a dozen dissidents.

Organizers of the kingdom's first hunger strike say the participants include lawyers, journalists, students and families of the detained dissidents. They are observing the two-day strike in their homes in several cities to circumvent a ban on assembly.

“I'm joining them to protest my father's detention,” said Mariam Hashemi, a university student in Jiddah. “He's been sick and in solitary confinement for almost two years now. I don't think this protest will help much, but it's a way to express our dejection.”

Another protester, Sameera al-Bitar, said she was disappointed that more people were not participating.

“This is a historic step in Saudi Arabia, a major moment in the path to political reform. But people here are still living in a culture of fear,” said Bitar, a businesswoman. “The Saudi government has been trying to improve the image of the kingdom abroad. But that image should also be changed internally by implementing the basic rights granted to citizens …”

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that does not tolerate dissent, or civil and human rights groups.

Although free speech restrictions have eased since King Abdullah took the throne in 2005, the hard-line Interior Ministry continues to stifle political reform.

The group's 13 leaders issued a statement on Facebook and on several Arabic Web sites two weeks ago calling for participants. The statement said that the group wanted to draw attention to the dissidents' imprisonment and demand that the government charge or release them. The organizers have said they were aware they risked arrest but that it was a sacrifice they were willing to make.