(New York) - Saudi authorities should overturn a sentence of 50 lashes and two months in prison for a journalist who wrote about public anger over electricity cuts, Human Rights Watch said today.
On October 26, 2010, the General Court in Qubba in northern Saudi Arabia imposed the sentence on Fahd al-Jukhaidib, Qubba correspondent for Al-Jazira, a daily national newspaper. He was charged with "incitement to gather in front of the electricity company" for reporting that citizens had been gathering to protest. He has appealed the verdict and remains at liberty.
"King Abdullah has encouraged citizens to voice their legitimate concerns," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But apparently those who do can expect a public lashing and a prison term."
Al-Jukhaidib's article describing the difficulties Qubba residents were experiencing as a result of frequent power cuts was published in Al-Jazira on September 7, 2008. The article, "Qubba Residents Gather to Demand Electricity," did not include a call for action but described the protest and the protesters' concerns:
Hundreds of citizens gathered in front of an electricity station in Qubba demanding that the company supply electricity in the town of Qubba. Repeated outages had caused damage to electrical appliances in houses and material losses for commercial business, and led to the declaration of an emergency situation for sick persons, in particular children and the elderly with asthma.
The verdict against al-Jukhaidib specifies that he is to receive 25 of the lashes in public in front of the electricity company. Al-Jukhaidib told Human Rights Watch that during his trial, 45 residents testified about the damages and losses they had incurred over the past 15 years because of the lack of a stable power supply, and about how managers of the electricity company had ignored their calls for improved service.
The Culture and Information Ministry, which is responsible for adjudicating complaints arising from publications, did not intervene because the Qubba prosecutor had classified the complaint from the electricity company against al-Jukhaidib as a "security" case of incitement. Al-Jukhaidib is principal of a local high school for boys as well as a journalist.
Al-Jukhaidib said the judge did not specify provisions of statutory law or of Islamic Sharia law prohibiting instigating or participating in public gatherings, or writing about them. Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code.
The government prohibits all public gatherings of a protest nature as a matter of policy. But there are no laws regulating this prohibition, and instigating a demonstration or writing about a public gathering are not recognizable criminal offenses. Judges have discretion in classifying any act as a crime and in setting punishments.
International law guarantees the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of expression. Saudi Arabia is one of only about 30 states worldwide that have not yet ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, where those rights are codified. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also affirms these rights. In April 2009, Saudi Arabia became the first Arab country to ratify the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which in articles 24.f. and 32 guarantees the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of opinion and expression, and the right to impart news to others by any means.
In November 2007, Judge Ibrahim Husni of the Summary Court in Buraida, north of Riyadh, sentenced Professor Abdullah al-Hamid and his brother ‘Isa al-Hamid, two well-known advocates of political reform, to four months and six months in prison, respectively. The Investigation and Public Prosecution Department had charged the brothers with instigating a public demonstration. Judge Husni's verdict said the brothers should be punished because their actions could have led to acts forbidden in Islam.
"One wonders what the judge who convicted al-Jukhaidib considered the greater ignominy: a public gathering to demand electricity, or publicizing the gathering in the media," Wilcke said. "Free assembly and expression are both hallmarks of open, accountable societies, but they are in short supply in a country as repressive as Saudi Arabia."