Arrest of Hajj Usama al-Atar (Hajj 2011)

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During the pilgrimage season of 2011, Hajj Usama al-Atar was arrested on false pretexts by the Mutawa, Saudi Religious Police, in the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia. He was kept in prison for 36 hours under "horrid conditions"'[1] The incident took place on October 30th shortly after the morning Fajr prayers.

Usama al-Atar was arrested and kept in prison for 36 hours



Usama al-Atar was amongst a small group of pilgrims at the cemetery of Baqi, paying respect to, and reciting salutations (Ziyarat) to the dead, when the religious police attempted to silence them. This harassment forced the group of pilgrims to leave the cemetery and continue their recitation outside the cemetery. It was then that another set of religious police began to harass the pilgrims again, and essentially forced the pilgrims to close their prayer books and leave. At this point a police officer began name-calling and called al-Atar a "thief", which resulted in a scuffle in which al-Atar was "manhandled". Thereafter, the security guards detained him until the local police arrived to the scene. Eyewitness reports stated that[2]:

They manhandled him badly, he had blood on him. They forced him to sit under an air conditioning unit, and squashed him until he was blue in the face.

Other witnesses also stated that al-Atar was falsely accused of breaking the arm of one of the religious police, and due to this, was arrested and taken to the Central Police Station of Medina. Initial reports stated that al-Atar would have to go to trial the next day under this pretext. The prison was described as a small cell, approximately eight meters in length, and five meters in width, and held 28 people in this cramped area.


There was a quick and rapid response to the arrest of Usama al-Atar from Muslims all over the world, particularly in Canada, United States and the United Kingdom. The Islamic Human Rights Commission campaigned immediately and tirelessly on al-Atar's behalf in order to ensure his safe release. Attempts were made to contact relevant political authorities in Canada and coverage of the incident had reached all major Canadian networks like that of CBC, CTV and Global News, and also reached the majority of Canadian newspapers. The story then reached many international networks, including al-Jazeera and Press TV. Many felt however, that the Canadian government was too slow in their response and had little reaction to the fact that a Canadian citizen was manhandled and arrested unjustly[3]. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not make any official statement on the innocence of Usama or the injustice done to him, but rather said they were aware of the situation and would be available "as required". The Ahlul Bayt TV hosted an emergency live show a few hours later to keep viewers updated on the story.

An online petition on[4] urging the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to release al-Atar was able to generate more than 4,000 signatures within a short span of time. The hashtag #freeusamaattar was used by individuals on Twitter to tweet relevant news, updates and opinions regarding the incident. Further, several facebook groups were created, and a profile pictures campaign saying "Free Usama Attar" was created.


The following day, news of al-Atar's release from Saudi custody without any formal charge against him was announced[5]. A statement by al-Atar was published on the Islamic Human Rights Commission website. He did not speak in detail of his 36 hour ordeal in custody and stated:

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. I apologise sincerely but I am sure you will understand why. I look forward to returning home to my family in my home town of Edmonton, Canada, by the middle of this month and will be more than willing to share this traumatic experience with all of you.


  1. IHRC receives statement from Dr Al-Atar after his release
  2. Well known Canadian cleric arrested in Holy City of Madina in Prophet’s Mosque
  3. Where’s Ottawa on imam’s arrest? The Star
  4. Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Release Shaykh Usama Al-Atar immediately
  5. Usama Al-Atar released

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