By Tara Abhasakun
In Saudi Arabia — a U.S. ally — 28 people, mostly Shiites, were arrested in 2013 and charged with “spying” for Iran — a common charge levied against religious minorities in Saudi, a country that exports a radical brand of Islam to countries worldwide. The brother of one prisoner insists that his brother is innocent.
Between March and May 2013, 28 people in several cities in Saudi Arabia were arrested and charged with spying for Iran. It’s common for Shias to be accused of spying in Sunni-majority Saudi, where clerics regularly call for the killing of Shias.
Borderless News Online spoke with Mohammad Al Taleb, the brother of Badr Al Taleb, one of the men arrested. Mohammad lives in Texas. Badr was arrested in Mecca. Badr and the 27 others arrested were originally given death sentences. According to Mohammad, the death sentences were lifted a month ago and replaced by sentences to varying years of imprisonment. Badr’s sentence, 20 years, will be the longest out of all the prison sentences.
Mohammad, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me. Why was your brother accused of spying for Iran?
Badr was about to drive his children to school, when police came to his apartment to arrest him. The police accused him of working with people who they said were spying for Iran.
How are Shias treated in Saudi?
Shias can be easily identified through their names, as well as through different funeral ceremonies. Sometimes, police arrest people who they see reading books written by Shia scholars. Saudi Sunni clerics regularly declare fatwahs (Islamic statements of opinion) calling for the deaths of Shias. In October 2015, cleric Mohammad Al Barrak tweeted in support of an attack by ISIS shooting and killing five people at a Shiite mosque in the Saudi city of Siahat.
“Shiites are a minority in our country who differ with us in religion and its principles. Their practice of their religious rituals is an attack on Islam and its great personalities. They should be prevented from practicing their rituals,” tweeted Al Barrak, who is a respected Saudi scholar.
How are prison conditions for your brother?
Since being imprisoned, Badr has lost more than 85 pounds. When my sister-in-law saw him, she said that it looked as though he was all skin. She told me that he had cigarette burns on his hand. He has been hit in the face with a shoe by a security guard.
Despite having been imprisoned for over three years, Badr was only aloud his first phone call to me (his brother) and our sister around two and a half months ago. Before, he was only allowed to call his wife. He is typically only allowed to make phone calls that last for around two minutes.
He has not even been allowed to meet with a lawyer. The lawyer responsible for the case of these 28 men ended up leaving Saudi because he was not allowed to meet with any of the defendants, and therefore would not be able to properly defend them in court. Shiites imprisoned are often not given enough time with lawyers.
How much international attention has your brothers’ and the other prisoners’ cases received?
I have spoken with Amnesty International, the European Union, and a few other groups. I started a petition, however the prominent circles of people in Saudi Arabia who could potentially publicize the petition are too afraid to do so. They are afraid of the consequences.
I have lost most of my friends due to posting things on Facebook about my brother and about my views in general. My friends agree with me, however they are afraid because the Saudi government monitors their texts and internet activity. So after they saw some of my Facebook posts, they stopped talking to me as much as they had before. I understand why they are afraid, though.
I have tried speaking with various people and groups, but I just feel like the Saudi government have this big fat power, I feel helpless. I just thank God that I am here and I am safe.
All these people who have been arrested are good people. My brother never hurt anyone, he only tried to help poor people. He mostly spoke about how to build unity between people of different faiths and beliefs.
Borderless News Online emailed the Saudi embassy in Washington DC to ask what evidence they had that Taleb and other prisoners were spying for Iran. The embassy did not reply.
— The original version incorrectly stated Badr’s brother’s current location. It has been corrected.
— The original version incorrectly described how Badr was detained. That has been corrected.
Tara Abhasakun is a freelance journalist located in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about human rights in the Middle East.
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