Canadian imam abruptly released

A Canadian imam who was beaten, arrested and falsely charged while on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia has been freed following media coverage of his ordeal and pressure from a human rights group.

A Canadian imam who was beaten, arrested and falsely charged while on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia has been freed following media coverage of his ordeal and pressure from a human rights group.

Usama Al-Atar, 33, of Edmonton, was released Monday following publicity about the incident, which took place Sunday in Medina, said Mohamed Hayward, who witnessed the attack.

Al-Atar, a researcher at the University of Alberta, was leading a small prayer group that included Hayward when they were asked to move along by Saudi religious police.

Between 10 and 15 of the officers then harassed the pilgrims and attacked Al-Atar before taking him into custody, Hayward said. Al-Atar was being “virtually strangled” by his assailants, he added.

Hayward said he didn’t try to resist the roughing up and remained passive, but authorities still went on to arrest him.

But when he was expected to make a court appearance today, Al-Atar was abruptly released instead.

Al-Atar has an elderly father, a pregnant wife and a three year-old-child in Canada. Hayward said he did not know details of his release or what conditions were imposed on him, but said he appears to be no worse for wear.

“He is pretty tired, a bit dishevelled,” Hayward said.

“He could do with a good rest. I think he’d love to speak with his wife and kids as well. Otherwise he seems to be OK.”

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs also made diplomats in Saudi Arabia aware of the arrest and offered consular assistance if necessary.

The Islamic Human Rights Commission also picked up on Al-Atar’s case and issued a statement Sunday calling for his immediate release. There was also a Facebook page set up on his behalf.

Hayward said he’s certain Canadian media reports of the incident and the work of the U.K.-based Islamic Human Rights Commission helped secure Al-Atar’s freedom.

“He could have been lingering in prison for God knows how long; with charges pending he would have been there for at least a month or two months,” he said.

“It’s a big, big relief.”

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

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

— With files from The Associated Press