Canadian imam released from 'horrid' Saudi imprisonment
Published Monday, October 31, 2011 3:18PM EDT
A Canadian imam who was allegedly beaten and arrested by police in Saudi Arabia said Monday he was relieved to be released from "horrid" conditions but planned to continue his religious pilgrimage.
Shaykh Usama Al-Atar, from Edmonton, was arrested in Medina on Sunday while leading a group in prayer.
"As you are well aware I was falsely arrested and held by Saudi authorities for the best part of the previous 36 hours in what can only be described as horrid conditions," Al-Atar said in a statement released by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC).
"I feel deeply relieved and very grateful to be free and reunited with friends."
Al-Atar went on to thank the IHRC for campaigning on his behalf, and the Canadian media for following his story.
He said he planned to continue his hajj, or religious pilgrimage, in Saudi Arabia and therefore it "would not, unfortunately, be sensible nor wise" to grant any media interviews.
Earlier Monday a spokesperson for the IHRC called on Ottawa to step in and lend support to Al-Atar.
The Edmonton imam had been in custody in Medina since Saudi religious police targeted the group he was travelling with.
Al-Atar was reportedly leading the group in prayer on Sunday when the police began to harass the group. Officers quickly focused in on the 33-year-old Edmonton man, taking him into custody, according to one witness.
"They virtually strangled him. We saw him go black and blue," Mohamed Hayward told The Canadian Press.
Massoud Shadjareh, of the IHRC in London, said earlier Monday Al-Atar was undergoing questioning at the district attorney's office Monday and his supporters hoped he would be released soon after.
"He was seen by a number of people at the police station and he's very shaken but in good health and to some extent a bit disillusioned with the events that have taken place," Shadjareh told CTV's Canada AM from London.
He called on Canadian diplomats to help, saying Al-Atar had no lawyer and no Canadian representatives had come to his aid.
"We were a bit surprised the Canadian government hasn't taken the role that it should and there's no support for him right now in Medina where he needs it most. He needs to be visited by consular officials and indeed even his family. We had to contact his wife to give news of his arrest," Shadjareh said.
Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs said Sunday that diplomats in Saudi Arabia are aware of the arrest and were ready to provide consular assistance if needed.
According to reports, Al-Atar has a pregnant wife and a three-year-old child in Edmonton, and an elderly father.
"He's a fully-fledged normal Canadian guy," Hayward said.
"We're just minding our own business, we're all from London and America and Canada and Europe, and we're all just trying to get on with our spiritual programs here."
Shadjareh said Saudi authorities have been "on edge" due to recent events related to the Arab Spring as well as the fact high numbers of refugees from neighbouring countries have spilled into Saudi Arabia to avoid tensions elsewhere.
With files from The Canadian Press