(New York) -- A prominent Saudi Arabian human rights defender was brought before a Riyadh court on Monday on 11 activism-related charges in the latest example of what Amnesty International called a "troubling string of court cases" aimed at silencing human rights campaigners.
The charges against Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani include setting up an unlicensed organization, understood to be the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) of which he is a founding member, "breaking allegiance to the ruler," accusing the judiciary of allowing torture and accepting confessions made under duress, describing the Saudi Arabian authorities as a police state, inciting public opinion by accusing authorities of human rights violations, and turning international organizations against the Kingdom.
His appearance in Riyadh’s Criminal Court is part of a series of recent trials aimed at silencing human rights activists in the Kingdom.
"The Saudi Arabian authorities’ trial of Mohammad al-Qahtani is just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the Kingdom’s human rights activists," said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program. "The case against him should be thrown out of court as it appears to be based solely on his legitimate work to defend human rights in Saudi Arabia and his sharp criticism of the authorities."
The Saudi Arabian authorities have recently targeted a number of human rights defenders, both through the courts and through arbitrary measures such as the imposition of travel bans.
On June 11, Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid, a well-known advocate of reform and another of ACPRA’s founders, also went on trial at Riyadh’s Criminal Court, charged with a long list of offenses. Most are similar to those with which al-Qahtani is charged and relate to his human rights work. He is also charged with inciting disorder, including by drafting and publishing a statement calling for protests.
Several human rights activists were present at his trial hearing, including al-Qahtani, who was only then informed that he was to be brought to trial a week later.
The trials of al-Qahtani and al-Hamid are due to resume on September 1. The two men, along with Dr. Abdulkareem Yousef al-Khoder, another founder and current president of ACPRA, have been under investigation by the public prosecution since March.
ACPRA was set up in October 2009. As well as reporting on human rights violations, it has helped many families of detainees held without charge or trial to bring cases against the courts and government.
In another ongoing case, human rights defender and writer Mikhlif bin Daham al-Shammari faces multiple charges, including trying to harm the reputation of the Kingdom in international media, communicating with suspect organizations and accusing state organs of corruption. Al-Shammari is well known for his critical writings about human rights violations and corruption.
He was released in February on bail after more than a year and a half in detention for an article he published criticizing what he said was prejudice by Sunni religious scholars against members of the Shi’a minority and their beliefs. In April the authorities informed him he was banned from leaving the country for 10 years.
His trial in the Specialized Criminal Court – which was set up to try terrorism suspects – began onMarch 7 and his next session is scheduled for June 26.
Another human rights activist, Waleed Abu al-Kheir, is still fighting a case for disrespecting the judiciary and harming the reputation of the Kingdom by giving an international organization false information about his wife Samar Badawi. His trial before the Criminal Court in Jeddah began in September 2011.
He also had a travel ban imposed on him in March, just days before he planned to attend a democracy course at a US university. Amnesty International previously said the ban was unjustified and called for it to be lifted immediately.
"Through trials based on spurious charges and arbitrary restrictive measures like travel bans, Saudi Arabian authorities are engaged in a campaign to force human rights defenders into submission," said Luther. "This must come to an end and human rights defenders must be allowed to carry on their crucial work to expose human rights violations and call for justice and accountability."
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.