Details about the arrest point to a plot by Islamic police against the Christian man who has been in jail for the last six months on charges of "evangelisation".
Riyadh (AsiaNews) Brian Savio O'Connor, a Christian imprisoned since March, was finally brought before a judge in a Deerah area courthouse (in Riyadh) for his first trial hearing. The proceedings lasted 90 minutes.
In addition to the known charges of drug use, selling alcohol and preaching Christianity Mr O'Connor was accused of possessing pornographic movies, this according to Middle East Concern (MEC), a Christian advocacy group in the Middle East that has been following the his case. MEC claims that charges against O'Connor are false, a fabrication of the Mutawwa, the Saudi religious police, designed to incriminate him because of his Christian beliefs.
O'Connor has been in prison since March after being abducted by the Mutawwa. In police custody he was tortured for a day and received death threats if he did not abjure his faith. Later, he was placed in the custody of Saudi courts and has been in prison for the past six months.
In his court hearing, O'Connor had no defence attorney and had to be his own legal council.
Initially, the court told him to speak in Arabic but given his limited fluency in the language he requested the assistance of official interpreter which was granted.
The presiding judge was not present in the early phase of the hearing; his assistant was and displayed a hostile attitude towards the defendant.
According to the prosecutor, the Indian-born Christian was caught selling liquor to a man hired by the Mutawwa to pose as a buyer. The serial numbers on the banknotes the buyer used in the transaction were recorded before the liquor was purchased. Since O'Connor was found with the banknotes he was charged with selling alcoholic beverages.
The prosecutor also charged O'Connor with possession of video material containing pornographic movies and storing Christian material on his computer. The defendant did admit to owning bibles and video material but denied his movies had any pornographic content. Asked why he had the videos, he answered that it was private material for personal use. The judges however disagreed and accused of "evangelisation".
In all, O'Connor had a hundred biblical video CDs. They included excerpts, documentaries and movies about the Holy Scriptures. Some 60 videocassettes contained shows from US TV preacher Benny Hinn by the Trinity Broadcasting Corporation. O'Connor's computer also stored an electronic version of the Bible.
The judges asked the defendant whether he had any Bible. He said that he had brought some copies from India [Editor's Note: O'Connor has been living in Saudi Arabia for the past six years] to the study the Scriptures. They then asked him whether he knew that bringing Bibles into Saudi Arabia was illegal. O'Connor said that he brought them legally. "At the airport, customs officials did not confiscate them," he pointed out. The Court concluded that the defendant "was not aware" that "such books" were banned. However, it did accuse him of owning Bibles in languages he, himself, did not know perfectly, namely Arabic and Urdu, and this, for the authorities, constituted evidence that he was using Christian books for the purpose of "evangelisation" and was thus involved in "preaching Christianity".
O'Connor did in fact organise private study sessions with Urdu and Arabic-speaking people. However, Saudi authorities have not adopted any final rules on banning Bibles from entering the country. Sometimes officials confiscate them; other times, they let them through. Some border officials let them through for personal use as long as they are not in Arabic; in other cases, people who had their Bibles confiscated can get them back after complaining with customs authorities.
To the evangelisation charge, O'Connor replied that he did not think that private religious meetings were illegal. To back his claim he referred to a report published in ArabNews on April 9, 2003, where it was clearly written that "non-Muslims can practice their faith in private". The Court said that the claim was untrue upon which O'Connor exhibited a photocopy of the Riyadh edition of the Arab News article. The Court asked that a copy of the article be found so that its contents could be verified.
Despite the Court's misgivings, the right to worship in private has been recently confirmed by Saudi authorities. On September 17, Lebanese daily The Star quoted a Saudi government official saying in response to the US State Department report on religious freedom that "non-Muslims who live in the kingdom do not have places for worshipping like churches because they are not citizens. [However,] they can practice their religions freely inside their houses".
Furthermore, on September 19, Saudi newspaper Okaz quoted Mutawwa chief Sheik Ibrahim bin Abdullah al-Ghaith saying that "[although] Saudi Arabia will never allow public displays of their faith, [it] does not prevent non-Muslims from practicing their religion".
The next hearing in the trial has not yet been scheduled but O'Connor will be able to confront his Mutawwa accusers. For now, "Brian said he was happy to hear that many people are praying for him and fighting for his release [. . . and] wants to thank them for their support," Middle East Concern reported.
According to Saudi authorities O'Connor must be an "exceptional" person and the leader of a group, backed by outside powers, that seeks to promote Christianity in the country. This, they infer from the many letters O'Connor has received during his months of incarceration. In fact, upon hearing of his arrest, many Christian organisations started a campaign on O'Connor's behalf out of religious solidarity urging Christians from all over the world to write a letter expressing solidarity and support to the imprisoned Christian from India. Western Embassies especially those of the US, the UK, and Canada have been putting pressure on the Saudi government to free O'Connor.
More importantly, the contention by Saudi prosecutors that O'Connor has many foreign contacts is based on the fact that he used many post-office boxes. However, since he could not have a personal box himself he had to rely on those of friends.
With the trial finally under way, certain aspects of O'Connor's March 25 arrest are coming to the fore showing how he was set up by the Islamic religious police.
Someone contacted O'Connor by phone saying that he was "interested in Christianity" and wanted to meet him to talk about it. After agreeing to an appointment, O'Connor left home for the meeting. He did not make it there because he was stopped by Mutawwa officers and driven away. He was brought to a mosque where he endured beatings and torture. "I was hung from the ceiling," O'Connor told friends who visited him in prison, "and they played football with my head."
There, he was held for 24 hours since, under Saudi law, suspects arrested by the Mutawwa can be held for "only" a day. The following day, he was taken to the Olaya prison and charged with drug use, liquor sale and preaching Christianity.
An unmarried Protestant, Brian O'Connor was employed as a luggage handler for Saudi Arabian Airlines, Saudi Arabia's national airline company.