In June 1996, a dreadful blast in the Saudi city of Khobar demolished residential buildings, killed 19 Americans, and wounded nearly 350 persons. But also, it carted off 17 years of the lives of nine Saudis, accused of planning and executing the explosion and possessing weapons relevant to the blast.
Ever since and hitherto, these nine are still behind bars, yet without trials or legal rights allowing them to take note of their charges and defend themselves. They were abused and tortured. As they are still locked up, their relatives called them "the forgotten."
Abdullah al-Jarrash, father of two and a young man who worked as an instructor, is one of them. His little girl was just a few-month-old toddler when police cordoned off the school where he worked in 1996 and led him to an unknown place. "We hadn't known anything about him for two and a half years, even though we reviewed every police and security department," his wife told As-safir newspaper.
With a lump in her throat, she goes down in the annals of time, relating the history of their engagement and marriage.
"We got engaged; we got married, and had our first son when he was still a college student. After he graduated, he worked in a faraway school. I seldom saw him. We then had our second child. This was when he got transferred to work in Dammam. He spent few months at home before they took him...we didn't live much together," she said.
On his arrest, she said: "He was arrested on Khobar's explosion background. But the charges are null and void. He is still untried until today. We call for his immediate release, so that he returns to his home and children."
Many years afterwards, Abdullah al-Jarrash was transferred to Dammam prison. One-hour monthly visits were allowed, and so was a 15-minute phone call every two weeks. Just two years ago, Abdullah was entitled to a phone call weekly, and to privacy with his wife, who brought to the world their third child, seven years after his detention.
"It was difficult for me to live without him being around. I had tough times of which only God knows. The older our children grew, the more their needs were. I wouldn't have been able to carry on had it not been for my and his family. But I've been patient, waiting for his release," his wife said.
His eldest son, who lived only few months with his father, got married. And so did his daughter. "I wished his father could be there. It was really hard for me and for the children to celebrate this occasion without him," Um Mortada said. "He is always among us, through the small and big things in our life. We hope to have him back among us in the nearest time possible," she corroborated.
Mortada, his son who took charge of the family at a young age, called for the immediate release of his father and of all the detainees on top of whom religious men. "People took to the streets to demand their release. The mobilization will go on until this case is solved," he stressed.
All "nine forgotten" share the stiff conditions of detention, torture, and injustice, despite their different circumstances.
Fatima Youssof al-Suleiman, wife of detained Fadil Saeed Alawi now serving his 18th year in jail, told As-safir that her husband has been behind bars without trial or charges pressed against him.
Fatima chose to marry Fadel while he was imprisoned, almost six years ago. "I married him because he is committed to his cause. He has always been lovable in our town and he was a social activist," she said.
Fatima participated in the protests organized by the relatives of the "nine forgotten" in front of the police departments. She hoisted banners reading "It is my right to know the fate of my husband." But she was arrested subsequently for one day and she undertook not to do this again as a condition to her release.
Fadel Alawi stayed in Riyadh's prison for nine years. He is now in Dammam's jail.
Fatima hoped her husband would be soon released and given his rights. She confirmed that there would be no reneging on the release demand, which sparked a new era of mobilizations in the eastern region of KSA since February 2011, when people took to the streets and many were killed by the life bullet used by the police. Fatima's niece was amongst the slain protesters.
The case of the "nine forgotten" is a major concern for the watchdog Center of Justice for Human Rights. Ahmed Moshaikhes from the Center explained that the nine were arrested among a big group on alleged charges of Khobar's explosion. "Charges vary from planning and executing the explosion and weapons' possession. Nonetheless, they have been in jail since 1996 without trial. Many were released, but the nine forgotten are still kept," he said.
Moshaikhes said that the case was laid before officials and princes who were called to help release the innocent among them and those who served their sentences, and try them if they were guilty. "But this never happened," he pointed out.
He indicated that during a visit to the former prince of the eastern region, Mohammad Bin Fahd, he broached this case with him. "He told me that they were sentenced to death but that their penalty was commuted. He did not clarify the punishment though," he said.
As to their legal status, Moshaikhes revealed that the "nine forgotten" were not even allowed to appoint an attorney. "They were arrested without clarifying the charges. Their relatives kept asking for long about the reasons of their detention but the cause was not uncovered until a few years later," he said.
Moshaikhes maintained that the case of the "nine forgotten" is the key spark for the political mobilization witnessed in east the country since two years. "The foremost headline is the demand to release them, noting that their liberation will help mitigate the sharp tension especially that tens of thousands are taking to the streets to sympathize with them and their families," he concluded.