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Rare Saudi Arabia protest tests limits of political speech

Forty Saudis plan a hunger strike this week to bring attention to the prolonged detention of 11 political activists.

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As hunger strikes go, the 48-hour fast that Fowzan Mohsin al-Harbi and 39 other Saudis plan to stage this week is not likely to have a dramatic outcome.

Rather, says the mechanical engineer, the rare public protest is meant to make a statement about the prolonged detention of 11 men who had called for political reforms in this country.

"It's just a symbol to [draw] attention to our case," says Mr. Harbi, who works at King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh. "Yeah, I'm afraid," he adds. "But what can we do? We have to ask for our rights.... We have to move, like every people in the world."

In a sense, the hunger strike is a "virtual" protest. Organizers are publicizing it on Facebook.com and their own website. Word is also being spread by several Saudi bloggers.

This online communication is key since the participants plan to refrain from all food and drink in their own homes Thursday and Friday, the weekend here, so as to avoid violating a ban on unauthorized assemblies.

"If we get in one place, we might get in trouble," says Mohammad Fahd al-Qahtani, a professor of economics who also hosts a local television program.

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