(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should immediately release and drop all charges against Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, a 76-year-old former judge and president of the Saudi Association of Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA). He is one of 16 people detained in 2007 and convicted in 2011 for peacefully trying to establish a human rights organization in Jeddah. Four others also have been sentenced to long prison terms.
On November 11, 2011, a Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced al-Rashoodi to 15 years in prison for “breaking allegiance to the King,” “cooperating with outside organizations,” and other charges that arose entirely from his peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of association. He had been released in April 2011 and remained free on bail, however, until December 12, 2012, after he delivered a public lecture in Riyadh on the legality of demonstrations under Sharia law.
“By deciding to enforce this cruel and absurd sentence against al-Rashoodi after he gave a speech on Islamic law, Saudi authorities seem to be saying that no independent individual can comment on Sharia law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Peacefully seeking to establish a human rights organization and calling for reform are not crimes, and should never be treated as such.”
Members of his family who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that he has asked the authorities to take him before an appeals court but that they have not done so. Authorities detained al-Rashoodi’s daughter, Bahiya, for several hours in Riyadh on February 10, 2013, after she participated in a protest calling for the release of political detainees, including her father.
Security police detained al-Rashoodi in 2007, along with 15 other activists, academics, and lawyers who had been meeting to establish a human rights organization in Jeddah. They held him without charge for much of the following four years. In June 2011, they brought charges against him and released him on bail on condition that he would not reveal details of his arrest or detention. He had remained free on bail after his November 2011 conviction.
Authorities have waged a long campaign of harassment against al-Rashoodi for his rights activism. They claimed that the 2007 arrests of the 16 men were for their being part of an alleged “sleeper cell.” The authorities had previously detained al-Rashoodi in 1993 and 1995, when he was held without charge or trial for more than three years, and again in 2004, for calling for constitutional reform.
The authorities have not allowed al-Rashoodi to contact his family since his arrest in December, his relatives told Human Rights Watch. They said that people who have visited al-Hayer prison, where the former judge is being held, told them that he is in solitary confinement.
Four other members of the Jeddah reformers group remain in detention having been convicted of a number of the same charges. They are: Saud al-Hashimi, 46, a professor and social activist serving 30 years with a further 30-year travel ban and a fine of 2 million riyals (US$534,000); Musa al-Qarni, 55, a university professor serving 20 years with a 20-year travel ban; Abdulrahman al-Siddiq, 63, a researcher, serving 20 years and a 20-year travel ban; and Abdulrahman al-Shimmairi, 59, a university professor who gave several lectures calling for constitutional reform, serving 10 years and a 10-year travel ban.
The 11 others detained in 2007 were sentenced to prison terms of up to 25 years in 2010 but were released on bail after agreeing to sign pledges that they will not engage in further activity that the authorities consider unlawful.
Numerous high-level religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, including Sheikh Salman Al Owda and Sheikh Mohammed Al Oraifi, have called for the release of al-Rashoodi and the other remaining four prisoners. Authorities have responded by targeting people who expressed support for the group, imposing foreign travel bans on several who signed a petition entitled “Detainees in Jeddah and Events of Al Qatif” calling for the release of those detained in Jeddah and the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.
The authorities also detained Fouad al-Farhan, an activist who began a campaign for the detainees’ release, holding him from December 2007 to April 2008 without charging him or bringing him to trial.
Human Rights Watch has previously called on Saudi Arabia to release the detained reformers and to abolish the Specialized Criminal Court. The authorities established the court in 2008 to try terrorism cases but also have used it to prosecute peaceful dissidents on politicized charges and in proceedings that violate the right to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.
Defendants on trial in this court are frequently denied the right to consult lawyers, and proceedings are closed to the public. Saudi Arabia has no codified criminal law. As a result, individual judges are free to interpret the Quran and prophetic traditions – the two agreed-upon sources of Sharia – and to criminalize acts as they see fit.
Article 24 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia guarantees the right of all to freedom of association, and to “freely form and join associations with others.”
“The Saudi government should respond to the calls of its citizens and release al-Rashoodi and the remaining four members of the Jeddah reformists,” Whitson said. “Politicized, exorbitant, and unfair sentences do not amount to justice.”