Saudi Arabia must immediately and unconditionally release two founders of a local human rights organization who have spent nearly a year behind bars, after being convicted on the basis of their peaceful activism and criticism of the authorities, said Amnesty International.
Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to 10 and 11 years in jail respectively on 9 March 2013. Both are co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of the few organizations in the country recording human rights violations and assisting families of detainees held without charge.
“Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid are guilty of nothing more than daring to speak out on Saudi Arabia’s dire human rights record. The reality is that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is abysmal and anyone who risks highlighting flaws in the system is branded a criminal and tossed in a jail cell,” said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“By locking up two prominent human rights activists Saudi Arabia is brazenly flouting its international obligations and has displayed a flagrant disregard for people’s rights to freedom of expression and association.”
Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid were found guilty of several “offences”, including disobeying the ruler, inciting disorder and setting up an unlicensed organization. Their sentences were upheld by the Court of Appeal in January 2014. In the same trial session the court also ordered the disbanding of ACPRA and confiscation of its property. Even after their release from prison both men will be subject to lengthy travel bans.
Earlier this week the two men began a hunger strike in protest at the deterioration of their prison conditions. Both men have suffered as a result of arbitrary decisions by the prison authorities including confiscation of their books and personal belongings and moving them to prison cells that pose serious dangers to their health. Mohammad al-Qahtani was reportedly placed in solitary confinement since he started his hunger strike.
On 5 March 2014, when their legal representatives tried to visit them in al-Ha'ir prison in Riyadh, they were told by the prison authorities that they were not allowed to visit them, raising fears over their safety.
The authorities’ tightening stranglehold on media and social communications has created a climate of intolerance and fear across Saudi Arabia.
Scores of human rights activists have been arrested in recent months with eight of ACPRA’s 13 members detained and the rest facing interrogations and harassment.
“This campaign of persecution against human rights defenders has to end. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly resorted to draconian measures and repressive tactics to crack down on dissent with an iron fist, prosecuting and jailing peaceful activists,” said Said Boumedouha.
“Until rights activists are no longer perceived as a threat to national security, prospects for advances on human rights in Saudi Arabia remain grim.”
It is feared that a new anti-terrorism law introduced last month, featuring an overly vague-definition of terrorism and granting the Ministry of Interior sweeping powers, will speed up the crackdown on peaceful dissent.
“Saudi Arabia must stop abusing the justice system to silence criticism and dissent by imprisoning human rights defenders in the name of defending national security,” said Said Boumedouha.
“The international community must ratchet up pressure on Saudi Arabia’s authorities to release all imprisoned peaceful activists.”
Among other ACPRA members who have been targeted are Mohammed al-Bajadi and Dr Abdulkareem al-Khoder, both are facing re-trials after appeals against their sentences were rejected.
Fowzan al-Harbi, another ACPRA member is facing a number of charges including “inciting disobedience to the ruler by calling for demonstrations” and “describing Saudi Arabia as a police state”. He was detained without explanation after a court session ended in December 2013. His trial is ongoing.
Two other members of ACPRA, Issa al-Hamid (brother of Dr Abdullah al-Hamid) and Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, have been summoned several times for questioning about their peaceful activism. It is feared that both men will soon be tried and imprisoned.
Waleed Abu al-Khair another Saudi Arabian activist had his three month prison sentence upheld by the court of appeal in February 2014. He is expected to start serving his sentence any day.
Fadhel Maki al-Manasif, founding member of the Adala Center for Human Rights, has been detained since October 2011. He is currently on trial before the Specialized Criminal Court on charges also related to his activism.