Middle East
Saudi police release Canadian Shia imam
Witnesses say officers beat prominent Muslim leader from Edmonton who had travelled to the kingdom for pilgrimage.
Last Modified: 31 Oct 2011 20:28

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said Atar was accused of attacking Saudi religious police [UsamaAlAtar.net]

The Islamic Human Rights Commission says a Canadian man who was allegedly beaten and dragged out of a mosque while performing the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia has been released from prison.

Usama al-Atar was arrested in Medina during dawn prayers and held for about 24 hours until he was freed on Monday, the group said.

The London-based group, which spoke to witnesses, said Atar, a Shia, may have been arrested for criticizing the kingdom's handling of uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain.

Massoud Shadjareh, spokesman of the rights group, said the arrest reflects Saudi intolerance toward Muslims who do not follow the country's conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam.

Atar, a lecturer at the University of Alberta in Canada, said he planned to continue his pilgrimage.

"We are always concerned when Canadians are in trouble abroad," John Babcock, spokesperson for the Canadian Minister of State of Foreign Affairs, said.

"We made representations to senior Saudi officials and have been in contact with Mr Al Atar and his family and of course we are pleased that he has been released."

The Canadian government had confirmed the arrest on Sunday and a spokesman with the foreign affairs department said its embassy in Riyadh was prepared to provide diplomatic assistance.

'Bleeding quite a lot'

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that Atar was accused of attacking Saudi religious police but Saudi officials never confirmed any charges or his detention.

According to news reports, Atar was with an international group that travelled to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj and was leading a prayer recitation at a cemetery on Sunday when witnesses said he was confronted by officers from the country's religious police.

CTV, a Canadian broadcaster, reported that officers beat him without provocation, chasing and suffocating him in front of more than 200 witnesses. The officers then reportedly took him into custody without explanation.

Michael Hayward, a British citizen, described the assault to CTV: "He was bleeding quite a lot from the beating. They put his head to an air conditioning unit and sat on him until he was blue in the face".

Hayward told the Toronto Star that police "virtually strangled" Atar even though the imam did not put up a fight.
Defiant speech

Atar, who studies cancer research at the University of Alberta, is an outspoken Shia Muslim leader and founder of Active Muslim Youth of British Columbia, a not-for-profit organisation that teaches youth about Islam.

The imam's website states that Atar is originally from the Iraqi city of Karbala.

It says he began to recite the Quran professionally at the age of 14 and by 19 was reading before large audiences.

Reports said that Atar's work on diabetes and cancer had been widely published.

In March, Atar gave a speech in protest against the violence in Bahrain in which he said: "When my children ask me about what I did when I saw people getting killed and oppressed, I do not want to tell them that I stood silently".

A Saudi-led force of Gulf Co-operation Council troops was deployed to Bahrain's capital Manama to crack down on the Shia-led anti-government protests.

Atar has a pregnant wife and a three-year-old child in Canada, according to reports. 

The Saudi religious police referred to in reports are known as the Mutawa, a force charged with maintaining the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation's system of Islamic law.

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