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Saudi Arabia Has Arrested 160 Dissidents in Two Months, HRW Says

Saudi Arabia, a member of the Group of 20, has arrested more than 160 dissidents since February as part of the government’s crackdown on protests, Human Rights Watch said.

The government should order the “immediate release” of the “peaceful” dissidents, the New York-based group said in a statement today on its website. It also urged Interior Minister Prince Nayef to free Nadhir al-Majid, a teacher and writer who was detained on April 17 in the Persian Gulf city of al-Khobar.

Gulf nations have arrested activists, bloggers and doctors in an effort to quell unrest in a region that holds the world’s largest proven oil reserves. Bahrain declared a three-month state of emergency on March 15 after Saudi-led Gulf troops helped crush protests led by the majority Shiite Muslims, who were calling for more democracy and civil rights.

U.S. and European Union officials haven’t criticized Saudi Arabia for it “systematic violation” of international human-rights laws, Human Rights Watch said. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, visited the kingdom this month.

In Saudi Arabia, holder of 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves, protesters stayed away from a so-called Day of Rage on March 11 after police were deployed in force in Riyadh.

EU Silence

Al-Majid was arrested while working at a school in al-Khobar, the Human Rights First Society said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “After the arrest, security forces raided his home in Qatif, where they confiscated his laptop plus some personal belongings,” the al-Khobar group said.

“The EU’s silence on the brazen arrest of a peaceful dissident on the first day of its chief foreign policy representative’s visit looks like a pat on the back for an authoritarian state,” Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.

Al-Majid wrote an article on April 2 criticizing the government’s call to stop demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said. He wrote that “we see history bypassing us, and this speaks volumes to the ingrained blindness in political vision, analysis and consciousness,” according to the rights group.

Saudi Arabia is the least democratic country in the Middle East and ranks 160th out of 167 countries worldwide, according to the Democracy Index for 2010 published by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The kingdom said on March 28 that it will hold municipal elections on Sept. 22. The voting is open only to males 21 years and older.

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