(New York) - Prosecutors should immediately drop charges against Shaikh Mikhlif bin Dahham al-Shammari, a human rights activist, and release him, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch has seen a copy of al-Shammari's prison file, which lists "annoying others" as the charge against him. The charge relates to peaceful criticism al-Shammari has made of public officials and therefore appear to violate his freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
"If 'annoyance' is an imprisonable offense in Saudi Arabia, then scores of government officials should be behind bars, not least because of this frivolous prosecution of a man who is making a serious contribution to defending the rights of fellow Saudis," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "If anyone has reason to be truly annoyed, it's al-Shammari for being locked up on a frivolous charge."
Police in the town of Khobar arrested al-Shammari on May 15, 2010, over articles he had published attacking hard-line religious views, and briefly detained him, releasing him on bail. One month later, on June 15, criminal investigation officers again arrested al-Shammari, in Jubail, and detained him in the Khobar police station. Then on June 20, the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution registered case number 2029/255/31 against him with the charge of "annoying others," according to his file in Dammam General Prison, to which he was moved in early July.
Al-Shammari told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors interrogated him three times and that the investigation focused on six articles he had written and published on Saudi websites. The articles address various topics, but have as common threads criticism of double standards and of conservative religious views.
In his April 18, 2009 article, "My Dear Christian," al-Shammari contrasted the work of an American Christian who was killed while working to protect Palestinian Muslim children with the conditions imposed by Saudi Muslim charities that recipients must exhibit proper Islamic conduct.
In an article on December 24, 2009, al-Shammari praises Britain's Prince William for sleeping one night on the street with homeless people in freezing temperatures, and at the same time deplores the fact that no Saudi prince or businessman has spent even three hours in a poor family's home.
In a March 2, 2010 article, al-Shammari jokes about "annual greed" when the government doles out money as reward to "loyal" citizens, but without any discernible criteria for who receives the money, or how much.
On March 28, under the title "Excuse Me, Your Princely Highness, but You Have Failed," al-Shammari describes promised tourism projects that failed to materialize under a Saudi tourism official, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abd al-‘Aziz, and says, "I don't know why they lie to us and then ask us to trust them."
Two articles criticize conservative religious views. On January 1, al-Shammari took issue with a description by a Sunni preacher, Muhammad al-‘Arifi, of the revered Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as an "obscene, irreligious atheist."
And in an April 23 article, a reporter quotes al-Shammari decrying controversial religious figures - Yusif al-Ahmad, Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, Nasir al-‘Umar, Muhsin al-‘Awaji, and Muhammad al-Nujaimi, who is a government employee - for their opposition to reform, neglect of pressing problems such as unemployment and poverty, and insistence instead on the importance of "moral" questions such as the mixing of men and women.
Al-Shammari told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors used these articles to accuse him of spreading discord among Muslims, inciting Shia to demand their rights, insulting princes, and criticizing religious scholars, in addition to contacting international human rights organizations and appearing in international media, among others, though these charges are not listed in the prison file.
"It is little wonder that al-Shammari's pointed criticism of double standards and conservative views has piqued those he mentions by name," Whitson said. "The prosecutor's inane charge shows how little honest debate is possible in the kingdom."
Al-Shammari has gained prominence as a human rights activist in Saudi Arabia over the past several years. He is the representative for the Eastern Province selected by his tribe, al-Shammar, who are Sunni Muslims from the area around Ha'il, in northwestern Saudi Arabia. He has consistently tried to forge bonds of coexistence and understanding with the local Shia population in the province. Saudi authorities have tried to undercut his efforts, in line with the government's systematic discrimination against the Shia minority. Following his visit to a prominent Shia cleric, Shaikh Hasan al-Saffar, secret police arrested and detained al-Shammari on February 4, 2007, and held him for three months without charge. Al-Shammari is suing the Interior Ministry for arbitrary arrest.
Saudi Arabia has no penal code listing crimes and attendant sentences, leaving it entirely to the discretion of judges and, prior to any trial, law enforcement officials in the Interior Ministry, including prosecutors, to determine what acts may have constituted a criminal offense. Such an arbitrary system of law is radically inconsistent with the protection of human rights, Human Rights Watch said, including, where the criminal law is used against speech, the right to freedom of peaceful expression.
In 2009, however, Saudi Arabia acceded to the Arab Charter for Human Rights. Article 32 guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to impart news to others by any means. The only restrictions allowed on the practice of this right are those imposed for "respect for the rights of others, their reputation, or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals." Saudi Arabia is one of only a few countries that have not yet acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which in article 19 guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, as does the identical article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"Saudi authorities immediately should release Al-Shammari, whom they never should have detained in the first place," Whitson said. "If King Abdullah is indeed serious, as he has said, about promoting more open discussion in the kingdom, ending this frivolous prosecution would be an important indication that he intends to keep his word."