December 18, 2013

Waleed Abu al-Khair: Rights Defender On Trial

Waleed Abu al-Khair. © 2013 Private.

Waleed Abu al-Khair is a lawyer and founder of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, a human rights organization that authorities have refused to license. [37]

Abu al-Khair petitioned King Abdullah in 2007 to permit the establishment of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia but received no reply. Weeks later, the Saudi Ministry of Education revoked a governmental study abroad scholarship that Abu al-Khair had won, without explanation. Abu al-Khair completed his studies at his own expense.

Ministry of Social Affairs officials have also rejected his attempts to register the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia as an NGO in Jeddah, forcing him to register the organization in Canada. Its website has also been blocked in Saudi Arabia, but the organization’s Facebook page has over 5,600 subscribers.

In 2009, Abu al-Khair acted as defense lawyer for a member of the “Jeddah reformists”, a group of 16 men, including political and human rights activists, whom police detained after they met to establish a human rights organization.[38] Ministry of Interior officials threatened to imprison Abu al-Khair if he continued his work and warned his father and brother that he should stop his activities.[39]

In 2011, Abu al-Khair signed two other petitions to King Abdullah calling for political reform. One of the petitions, titled “Events in Qatif and Detainees in Jeddah,” called for the release of political detainees in Jeddah and for investigations into the recent killings of protesters by security forces in the Eastern Province. Prosecutors questioned many of the signatories to the petition, including Abu al-Khair. A number were compelled by threat of prosecution to sign retractions.

Abu al-Khair began his doctoral studies in the United Kingdom in 2011. Upon returning to Saudi Arabia for the month of Ramadan, the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution called him to appear before the Criminal Court of the Jeddah Governorate in September. The court informed him of criminal charges against him for “offending the judiciary” and “attempting to distort the reputation of the kingdom”, citing his calls for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and his appearance on foreign media channels where he spoke out about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and the case of Samar Badawi.[40] In subsequent sessions, prosecutors questioned him and accused him of providing information to Human Rights Watch. The trial remains ongoing at this writing.

In March 21012, the Ministry of Interior imposed a travel ban on Abu al-Khair, preventing him from traveling to the United States to complete a fellowship program. The ministry did not give the reasons for the travel ban or its duration as required by law.

On September 12, 2013, Abu al-Khair received a call from an official with the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Rehabilitation Program, a Ministry of Interior-sponsored counseling program founded to re-integrate jihadists into Saudi society, summoning him to attend sessions at a center in Riyadh and stating that he would face charges in the Specialized Criminal Court.[41] Abu al-Khair received the charge sheet on October 6, which lists at least six charges related to his peaceful human rights activity, including “setting up an unlicensed organization” and “breaking allegiance with the ruler.”

On October 2, police arrested Abu al-Khair and initiated a third criminal case against him for having links with pro-reform activists and hosting them in his home for weekly discussion groups.[42] Authorities released him on bail on October 4.

In January 2013, Abu al-Khair was awarded the Olof Palme Prize for his “strong, self-sacrificing and sustained struggle to promote respect for human and civil rights for both men and women in Saudi Arabia.” After authorities prevented him from traveling to the awards ceremony in Stockholm, his wife, Samar Badawi, accepted the prize on his behalf on January 25 2013.[43]

[37]Saudi Arabia’s Justice Ministry has refused Abu al-Khair’s requests for a law license, but he nonetheless represents clients in court as a wakeel (or legal representative) at the discretion of individual judges.

[38] “Saudi Arabia - Increasing Threats and Harassment Against Human Rights Defender, Mr Waleed Sami Abu al-Khair”, Front Line Defenders, July 14 2009, http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/2095.

[38] ”Saudi Arabia: Drop Charges Against Human Rights Lawyer,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 11, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/11/saudi-arabia-drop-charges-against-human-rights-lawyer-0.

[39] Ibid.

[40]Gulf Center for Human Rights, “The Saudi Government Continues to Target Human Rights Lawyer Waleed Abu Alkhair”, February 4, 2012, http://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/64.

[41] Human Rights Watch email communication with Waleed Abu al-Khair, September 12, 2013.

[42] “Saudi Arabia: Jailed for Hosting Discussion Group,” Human Rights Watch news release, October 4, 2013, http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/10/04/saudi-arabia-jailed-hosting-discussion-group

[43]Front Line Defenders, “Saudi Arabia - Increasing Threats and Harassment Against Human Rights Defender, Mr Waleed Sami Abu-alkhair”, July 14 2009, http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/2095,