A prominent Saudi Arabian activist convicted today for speaking out on the human rights situation in his country should have his sentence quashed, Amnesty International said today amid an ongoing crackdown on rights groups.
Fowzan al-Harbi, a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), was sentenced to seven years in prison and a travel ban of equal duration by a court in the capital Riyadh after being convicted on a range of spurious charges related to his human rights work.
“Fowzan al-Harbi has been ruthlessly targeted for daring to question the Saudi authorities’ human rights record,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“His sentence should be quashed immediately and he should walk free from the court. He should never have faced trial in the first place.”
Al-Harbi was convicted of several “offences”, including “breaking allegiance” with the ruler by calling for protests, criticizing the authorities and participating in the founding of an “unlicensed organization” (understood to be ACPRA).
The 36-year-old father of two had been arbitrarily detained since 26 December 2013, when a judge ordered his arrest without providing any reason.
He was released on 24 June, a day before his conviction, and is currently free pending the outcome of his appeal.
However, the judge insisted that he sign a pledge not to publish anything on social media or socialize with other people until the sentence is considered final after the appeal. He remains at risk of arbitrary detention.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly prosecuted human rights activists with total impunity, with ACPRA bearing the brunt of the authorities’ repression.
The organization, which was set up in October 2009, incurred the wrath of the government by reporting on human rights violations and helping families of detainees held without charge to bring cases against the authorities.
Many of its founding members have since been imprisoned.
“The Saudi government’s persecution of ACPRA and its members illustrates its callous disregard for human rights. Instead of punishing activists, the authorities need to constructively address their criticism of the government’s human rights record and the failings of the justice system. They should work with activists to act on their pledges to carry out fundamental reform of the country’s justice system,” said Said Boumedouha.
“The unjust conviction and sentence of Fowzan al-Harbi, which prevents him from not only writing in any medium but also from socializing with others, is designed to send a warning to other activists that there is no place in Saudi Arabia for dissent, free expression or criticising injustice.”
Fowzan al-Harbi had been under investigation since 11 May 2013 at the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution.
His trial started on 4 December 2013 and he faced charges including "inciting disobedience to the ruler by calling for demonstrations", "signing documents that incite public opinion against the authorities", "describing the Saudi Arabian state as a 'police state'", "accusing the judiciary of being incapable of delivering justice", "co-founding an unlicensed organization" (understood to be ACPRA) and "ignoring judicial decisions ordering its dissolution".
He is the latest member of ACPRA to be sentenced by the Saudi government on similar charges.
Two ACPRA co-founders, Dr Abdullah al-Hamid and Dr Mohammad al-Qahtani, were sentenced on 9 March 2013 to 10 and 11 years’ imprisonment respectively, to be followed by travel bans of equal duration.
The court also ordered the disbanding of ACPRA, confiscation of its property and the closure of its social media accounts.
Another founding member, Issa al-Hamid, brother of Dr Abdullah al-Hamid, is currently standing trial before the Criminal Court in Buraydah, north of Riyadh, on similar charges.
A third brother, Dr Abdulrahman al-Hamid, was arrested on 15 April 2014. He was firstly detained incommunicado before being transferred to al-Qassim prison in Buraydah where he is currently held without any charge or trial.
The youngest member of ACPRA, 22-year-old Omar al-Sa’id, was sentenced on 12 December 2013 by a criminal court in Burayda to four years in prison and 300 lashes. He was also handed a four-year travel ban to be enforced after he has served his sentence.
Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, who in addition to Issa al-Hamid is the only other ACPRA founding member not yet sentenced and imprisoned, has been summoned by the General Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution several times.
It is feared that both men will soon be sentenced to lengthy prison terms.