January 11, 2008 / 5:07 PM / 11 years ago

Saudi releases activist ahead of Bush visit

RIYADH, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has released a reform activist just days before a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Mohammed al-Bijadi was detained by state security police in the northern town of Buraida on Wednesday, the latest of a series of measures against government critics in the absolute monarchy dominated by the Saudi royal family.

Colleague Matruk al-Faleh said Bijadi was released early on Friday. "It seems that the campaign to defend him and to defend freedom and rights helped bring about his speedy release. We must continue to defend all detainees," he said.

Bijadi had been held for three months over his role in two rare public protests last year by women angry about the indefinite detention of their husbands.

Critics say the authorities have exploited their battle with militants to crack down on democracy campaigners, who face a revolving door of arrest, release and re-arrest.

Bush arrives in Riyadh on Monday as part of a Middle East tour. Washington rarely makes public criticism of Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter which relies on U.S. military support in the Gulf, over its political and human rights record.

But Bush spoke out against a Saudi court verdict condemning a gang rape victim to 200 lashes in a case that provoked international outcry in November.

Last month King Abdullah, promoted as a reformer in the Saudi media, issued a "pardon" to the 19-year-old woman whom hardline cleric-judges blamed for being with an unrelated man when she was kidnapped by her seven attackers.

Bush is looking for Saudi and Arab support for U.S. efforts to further isolate Iran in the region as well as reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. (Reporting by Andrew Hammond; editing by Robert Woodward)

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