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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, hundreds of young men from Saudi Arabia are sneaking into Syria to fight against the Assad dictatorship. Saudi authorities provide funds and arms to Syrian rebels, although they deny sending fighters.

Independent producer Reese Erlich traced those fighters back to the Saudi Arabia.

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REESE ERLICH, BYLINE: A crowd of men walk slowly out of a working-class mosque after Friday prayers. The Mosques' imam has just asked everyone to pray for the Syrian rebels. Worshipper Taher Mohammad wants to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad.

TAHER MOHAMMAD: Bashar, his army is making all kinds of crime. Yes, of course, I support the revolution.

ERLICH: Mohammad says he also supports Saudis going to fight in Syria. Dozens of Facebook pages memorialize Saudis killed in Syria.

Late last year, a judge in one Saudi city told young anti-government protesters that they should be fighting jihad in Syria, not demonstrating at home. Reached by phone, Abdurrahman al-Talq, father of one of the defendants, recalls what the judge said.

ABDURRAHMAN AL-TALQ: (Through Translator) The judge said, you should save all your energy and fight against the real enemy, the Shia Muslims in Syria, and not fight inside Saudi Arabia.

ERLICH: Within weeks, 11 of the 19 defendants left to join the rebels. In December last year, al-Talq's son was killed in Syria.

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ERLICH: At a human rights meeting in Riyadh, participants discuss Saudi involvement in Syria. Mohammad al-Qahtani, an activist and professor at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies, says the judge's remarks reflect a government effort to undercut domestic protest.

MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Diffuse the pressure, the domestic pressure, by recruiting young kids to go and join another proxy war in the region.

ERLICH: Don't participate in the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia. Go to Syria and do it there?

AL-QAHTANI: Oh, that's exactly the case.

ERLICH: Qahtani says most of the youth join ultraconservative rebel groups such as the Al-Nusra Front. The U.S. State Department has designated Al-Nusra a terrorist organization.

AL-QAHTANI: Make no mistake, these folks definitely are against democracy and human rights, and so on and so forth. So you have to be really careful because it could backfire. The ramifications could be quite serious in the whole region.

MAJOR GENERAL MANSOUR AL-TURKI: Saudi Arabia does not allow any Saudis to get involved in any other internal affairs. It's illegal.

ERLICH: Major General Mansour al-Turki is spokesperson for the Saudi Ministry of Interior.

AL-TURKI: Anybody who wants to travel actually outside Saudi Arabia in order to get involved in such conflict, he will be arrested and prosecuted. But only if we have the evidence before actually he leave the country.

ERLICH: Critics say the government doesn't try very hard to find such evidence. Professor Qahtani says meddling in the Syrian civil war hurts the entire region.

AL-QAHTANI: Once foreigners are involved there are going to be mercenaries leading the war. It could give an excuse, if you will, for the Syrian regime that these are foreigner mercenaries fighting, which is a wrong policy to do.

ERLICH: Last week, Qahtani's outspoken criticism of Saudi authorities led to his arrest and sentencing to 10 years in prison for sedition. Amnesty International denounced the arrest and called him a prisoner of conscience.

For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

INSKEEP: And, by the way, Reese Erlich's reporting from Saudi Arabia is part of a partnership between NPR and the GlobalPost.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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