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(Beirut)– Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court sentenced a prominent human rights activist to five years in prison on June 17, 2013, based on his writings and exposure of human rights abuses. Mikhlif al-Shammari was convicted of “sowing discord” and other offenses and barred from travelling for 10 years.

Two days earlier, a Khobar court sentenced two women’s rights advocates to prison for “inciting a woman against her husband.” Saudi authorities should immediately cease harassing, prosecuting, and jailing Saudi human rights activists for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch said.

“Al-Shammari is the latest in a lengthening line of Saudi human rights activists hauled before the courts and branded as criminals for exercising their right to free speech,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “King Abdullah needs to reform the criminal justice system to end these abuses unless he wants his legacy to be repression rather than reform.”

Al-Shammari, 58, will have 30 days after he receives the court judgment against him to appeal. Security forces arrested him in June 2010 and held him on a charge of “annoying others” until February 2012, when he was released on bail. His trial began in March 2012 and he told Human Rights Watch that the court allowed his lawyer to attend only one of 14 sessions.

Al-Shammari, a writer, has sought to use his role as the representative of the large Sunni al-Shammar tribe to improve ties with Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, based in the Eastern Province. He has strongly criticized government rights violations, many of which have targeted the Shia. In 2008, he visited a Shia mosque in al-Qatif and prayed next to a Shia religious leader in a show of solidarity that prompted national headlines.

He told Human Rights Watch he was convicted based on articles that he wrote and published in 2009 and 2010 criticizing corruption, double standards, and the hypocrisy of some religious figures.

In an article dated April 18, 2009, al-Shammari lauded an American Christian who was killed while seeking to protect Palestinian Muslim children, contrasting his action with Saudi Muslim charities that he said condition assistance on recipients exhibiting proper Islamic conduct.

In a March 2010 article, he said proposed tourism projects that had failed to materialize under Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abd al-‘Aziz, a tourism official, commenting, “I don't know why they lie to us and then ask us to trust them.”

In another article, al-Shammari took issue with the views of Sunni religious conservatives, including the denunciation by Muhammad al-‘Arifi, a preacher, of Ayatollah

Ali al-Sistani, a revered Iranian Shia leader, as an “obscene, irreligious atheist.” He also criticized a Sunni Imam who he said had misappropriated one million Saudi Riyals in charity funds.

Al-Shammari told Human Rights Watch that one charge against him was brought under Article 6 of the Information Crimes Law of 2007. He said he had in 2010 investigated allegations of two girls that their brother was forcing them into sex work in the northwestern city of Tabouk. He said he investigated the allegations with the approval of his organization, the government-affiliated National Family Safety Program, and recorded video evidence on his mobile phone.

At his trial, the authorities accused him of harming the public order by uploading a video to YouTube that appears to show the brother threatening the girls. Al-Shammari said he has no connection to the video and does not know who created and uploaded it.

Al-Shammari told Human Rights Watch that his human rights work has strained both his finances and his family relations. His son has publicly criticized his activism and, in June 2012, shot him four times. He spent months in the hospital.

Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Judicial Council established the Specialized Criminal Court in 2008 to try terrorism suspects. Human Rights Watch has called repeatedly for abolition of the court because of its lack of independence and unfair procedures.

Saudi Arabia has no written criminal law and prosecutors and judges have discretion to criminalize any act on the basis of their own interpretation of the precepts of Islamic law. The lack of clear and predictable criminal law violates international human rights principles, such as those that prohibit arbitrary arrest and guarantee fair trials. Article 15 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, states: “No crime and no penalty can be established without a prior provision of the law. In all circumstances, the law most favorable to the defendant shall be applied. International human rights standards also prohibit the criminalization of peaceful speech.

Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, to which Saudi Arabia is party, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to impart news to others by any means.

“Mikhlif al-Shammari stands convicted of harming Saudi Arabia’s image, but it is his trial and conviction, not his words or actions, that tarnishes the reputation of the kingdom,” Stork said.

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