A Canadian Muslim cleric will have to keep a low profile and stay quiet about being arrested, bruised, bloodied and shackled in a holding cell while he completes a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
Usama Al-Atar, a well-known Edmonton Shia spiritual leader, was released on Monday. He was arrested after a clash with Saudi religious police who noticed his group performing supplications at the Jannat al-Baqi, the graveyard near the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.
“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,” Dr. Al-Atar said in a statement released on Monday.
It was as far as he could go in his remarks. “As I will be staying in Saudi Arabia and continuing with my Haj [religious pilgrimage] it would not, unfortunately, be sensible nor wise of me to conduct any media interviews,” the statement added.
The cleric was kept in a cell with 24 to 26 others and was dishevelled and sporting bruises on his arms when he came back, said Mohamed Hayward, a British member of the group.
A bail order stipulates that Dr. Al-Atar be available to the authorities at any time, Mr. Hayward said.
“We have another 10 days to go here in Mecca and Medina, and we don't want to compromise his position any more.”
The cemetery has long been a place of tension between Shia pilgrims and the religious police, who uphold a strict application of Wahhabist Islam at odds with other Muslim schools of thought.
“They [the religious police]are very touchy about people going there,” said Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the London-based advocacy group Islamic Human Rights Commission.
Mr. Shadjareh said Saudi authorities are very edgy this year because of all the upheaval in the Middle East.
Mohamed Ridha Hamid, a London Shia who has been in touch with pilgrims in Dr. Al-Atar's group, said he saw similar arrests during two previous Hajs.
He said the religious police can identify Shia pilgrims by the way they perform their rites. “They attempt to scare you by putting you in a holding area. If you're a foreign national, ultimately they release you.”
He said a friend travelling with Dr. Al-Attar told him that the Saudi religious police had warned them twice the previous day that they were being too loud.
It wasn't immediately clear if the religious police knew they were dealing with a famous Shia figure.
Dr. Al-Atar, a post-doctoral chemistry researcher at the University of Alberta, is familiar to many Shia because he has given lectures around the world, Mr. Hamid said.
The Edmonton cleric has denounced human-rights violations in Saudi Arabia and in neighbouring Bahrain.
“The atrocities committed today against innocents in several countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia among others, are crimes one cannot stand silent about,” he said at a demonstration last March after Saudi-backed troops in Bahrain cracked down on protests by the Shia majority.
Dr. Al-Atar arrived in Medina last week, one of three clerics accompanying 170 pilgrims on a tour organized by a British agency.
On Sunday, he was leading a rite at the cemetery when more than a dozen members of the religious police forced them to leave. One of the religious police then called out that Dr. Al-Atar was a thief, leading to his arrest, Mr. Hamid said.
They put Dr. Al-Atar in a chokehold and beat him until his head was bloodied before arresting him, Mr. Hayward said.
He said Dr. Al-Atar is grateful for the public expression of support and the media attention, which is believed to have helped hasten his release.
“He was absolutely flabbergasted, very shocked. He can't believe it got so much attention.”
In Edmonton, where Dr. Al-Atar has lived for about two years, members of his mosque held a vigil Sunday in his honour.
Mahmood Mavani, president of the Islamic Shia Ithna-Asheri Association of Edmonton, a southeast city mosque where Dr. Al-Atar served as an imam, praised the work of the federal government and the local MP, Mike Lake, in pressing for his friend's release.
Mr. Mavani spoke with Dr. Al-Atar briefly on Monday, and said he sounded tired but in “good spirits.”
With a report from
Josh Wingrove in Edmonton