Saudi Arabia denies activist on hunger strike

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia Wed Apr 11, 2012 5:38am EDT

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - A prominent Saudi rights campaigner, who has been detained for a year, is not on hunger strike, an Interior Ministry spokesman said in response to activists saying he was in deteriorating health and Saudi authorities were to blame.

Mohamad al-Bajadi was detained in March 2011 after voicing support for families demonstrating outside the Interior Ministry in Riyadh to demand the release of jailed relatives, according to fellow activists.

"Mohamad al-Bajadi did not go on hunger strike and he is in good health, consuming food on a regular basis and in the company of other inmates," ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki said late on Tuesday.

Activists and the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) said at the weekend that Bajadi had been on hunger strike for the past month, and had stopped drinking water.

In a letter from Bajadi that a fellow activist said was leaked on March 27 via someone who was visiting another inmate, Bajadi said he was on hunger strike but was being force-fed.

"I inform you that I am still continuing with my hunger strike... On Tuesday March 20 I was taken to the prison hospital for a check-up and force fed in the presence of five soldiers and the ward officer," said the letter, addressed to Mohammad al-Qahtani and other activists.

"I have lost around 10 kilos (22 pounds) and my blood sugar level, according to them, has dropped to a dangerous level... I hope that you can ask to meet me in prison," it continued.

"Let us see the man and get assurances on his condition," said Qahtani who with other activists tried unsuccessfully to visit Bajadi in prison on April 2.

Bajadi's condition could not be independently verified. His trial, on charges including tarnishing the reputation of the state, was suspended after he refused to recognize the court.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy that has no elected parliament and almost no tolerance for public dissent. The kingdom - after announcing a generous spending package early last year - avoided the kind of unrest that swept across other Arab countries.

Independent rights groups estimate that the number of prisoners in Saudi Arabia ranges between 12,000 and 30,000 but the Interior Ministry denies there are any political prisoners in the kingdom.

The ministry said last year it was holding 5,696 people for "militant" related cases, most of whom appeared before courts.

Saudi daily al-Watan reported on Monday that Crown Prince Nayef ordered the release of "non-dangerous" prisoners and those whose sentences are almost complete, citing a letter from the prince addressed to all governors of Saudi Arabia and the head of bureau of investigation and public prosecution.

The pardon, which was ordered to cope with the high build-up of inmates in Saudi prisons, excluded detainees convicted in cases of national security, according to al-Watan.

(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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