by Barbara G. Baker
LOS ANGELES, January 3 (Compass) -- Saudi Arabian authorities transferred the last five of 14 foreign Christians from their Jeddah prison cell to a deportation center yesterday, according to nine other Christian prisoners already moved there on December 22 and 23.
"They are in a separate cell from us," Filipino prisoner Dennis Moreno reported in a phone call yesterday from Jeddah's Trahyl deportation center. "We have not seen them yet, because they are being held in a different hall, but we are very sure that they came here this morning."
"They are not telling us anything," Moreno said concerning deportation facility officials. Neither their prison guards nor respective embassy representatives have been able to inform them when they might be released to return to their own countries and be reunited with their families, he said.
Arrested four months ago, Moreno is one of 14 Christians jailed without formal charges or consular access in a sweep of arrests that began last July in Jeddah, a port city of Saudi Arabia. Saudi's zealous religious police detained the men, who are all active members of house churches in the city. Under the kingdom's strict version of Islamic law, non-Muslims are prohibited from meeting for public worship, and private Christian house meetings that become known are raided and stopped.
In addition to Moreno, the prisoners include nine Ethiopians, two Eritreans, an Indian and a Nigerian. The religious identity of one Ethiopian prisoner in the group remained unconfirmed.
For the past two weeks, Saudi authorities have indicated to the prisoners that their release and deportation was close at hand, leading them to believe they would be set free by Christmas or at least New Year's Day.
On December 19, all 14 prisoners had been told to pack their things and get ready to be deported. Reportedly two of the men, Indian national Prabhu Isaac and Moreno, requested that the Bibles, family photo albums and other items confiscated from their homes during their arrest be returned to them. The authorities finally agreed and took them off to collect their belongings. But when they all gathered at the gate of the prison to leave, the officials said they no longer had "time to process them." They ordered them to return to their cell, promising they would leave "next week."
When allowed family visits three days later, the men advised their wives to pack up their household belongings and prepare their children for deportation. But it was not until December 22 and 23 that nine of the Christians were transferred to Jeddah's Trahyl deportation center.
On December 24, both the Nigerian and Indian consulates confirmed to the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) that they had received "unofficial word" that their nationals would be deported during the coming week.
Shortly afterwards, Isaac's wife was told that her husband would be deported back to India within two weeks. But according to a verbal report from Riyadh in early December, Saudi authorities had indicated the Christians would be required to stay in jail for six months.
No explanation was given as to why the remaining five men, four Ethiopians and one Eritrean, were left behind at Sharafiah Ruis Prison. But according to the Eritrean Consulate, prison transfers for deportation are contingent upon closure of the foreigner's local bank account and other formal details that could delay a prisoner's release.
According to another source, delays in a prisoner's final release -- once he is cleared for deportation -- are often linked to the level of involvement of his respective consulate, rather than Saudi procedures.
"I can't explain how bad it is here," one of the prisoners commented yesterday regarding the detention center, where heavy rains three days ago apparently flooded the drainage system. Although a source in Jeddah who visited them a few days ago said the room where they were being kept was "the cleanest of any of them," he verified there was no furniture and the men were sleeping on a cement floor.
Several of the men are reportedly suffering from diarrhea and influenza, and one who slipped and fell in the night badly injured his foot, a Jeddah source confirmed.
"It is a real problem that they want to bring our families here," Moreno said. So far three wives have been requested to come to the deportation facility by Saudi authorities.
"They definitely want us to leave together with our wives and kids," Nigerian Christian Afobunor Okey Buliamin said today. "But we don't want them to come here, it is so bad." Buliamin has two young children, ages 5 and 18 months, and the wife of one of his cellmates is seven months pregnant, he said.
Buliamin's wife told Compass that the local authorities asked her to come with her children to the deportation center "to sign some papers."
"I think it is a trick," she said, noting that her consulate has advised her not to go.
Buliamin said he had been allowed to meet a representative of the Nigerian Consulate for the first time on December 29. According to the diplomatic officer, the Nigerian government still had not received any official reason for Buliamin's arrest, despite formal protests and inquiries on the case. All of his cellmates had also been allowed meetings with their consular representatives, he said.
When the Ramadan month of fasting began in mid November, the Christian prisoners had been required to fast along with their Muslim cellmates from dawn to dusk. But after one of the house church leaders complained, all 14 Christians were moved into two cells, seven per cell. This transfer in late November proved a major encouragement to them all, Isaac told his wife. "We forget we are in jail, except when we think of our families," he said.
Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.