(Beirut) – Saudi authorities arrested a prominent human rights lawyer and activist on October 2, 2013, for hosting a weekly discussion group for reformists. Saudi authorities should immediately release the lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and drop all charges against him as the arrest clearly violates his right to peaceful association and free expression. Local activists say it is the third set of charges he faces for peacefully advocating reform.
Police investigators in Jeddah summoned Abu al-Khair on October 1 for questioning. Police detained him when he arrived at 12:30 p.m. on October 2, his wife, Samar Badawi, told Human Rights Watch. The police transferred him to the al-Sharafiyya police station.
“Saudi authorities have sunk to a new low by arresting Waleed Abu al-Khair for hosting people in his home to exchange ideas,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director. “Saudi Arabia is putting itself forward to sit on the UN Human Rights Council in 2014, but it refuses to respect its citizens’ most basic rights.”
Badawi spoke with Abu al-Khair at the Sharafiyya police station on the afternoon of October 2. She told Human Rights Watch that police officers there said they detained Abu al-Khair on the order of Governor Khalid al-Faisal Al Saud of Mecca, and that her husband will face charges for his links to pro-reform activists as well as for hosting them at an unlicensed discussion forum in his home.
Weekly discussion forums known as diwaniyyas are a traditional social custom in Gulf Arab countries. Abu al-Khair titled his gathering Sumud (steadfastness), and meeting topics included political, cultural, religious, and human rights issues.
Abu al-Khair already faces separate trials before Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court and the Jeddah Criminal Court in connection with his rights activism.
Before his most recent arrest, Abu al-Khair had told Human Rights Watch that he received a call on September 12 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 starting on October 6. The caller said that Abu al-Khair would face trial on unknown charges before the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh.
Abu al-Khair told Human Rights Watch he told the caller that he refused to attend the sessions unless officials notified him directly. Police investigators formally notified him in late September that a hearing in the Specialized Criminal Court case had been scheduled for October 6, but did not tell him what charges he would face. Police have not made clear whether the October 2 arrest is related to the impending Specialized Criminal Court trial.
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.
In addition, Abu al-Khair faces an ongoing trial in Jeddah’s Criminal Court on a variety of charges related to his human rights activities, including “offending the judiciary” and “attempting to distort the reputation of the kingdom.”
Abu al-Khair is founder of Human Rights Monitor in Saudi Arabia, whose website Saudi authorities have blocked since 2009.
Authorities imposed a travel ban on Abu al-Khair in March 2011, seven months before charging him in the Criminal Court case, preventing him from traveling to the United States for a fellowship awarded by the US State Department.
Saudi courts have convicted at least seven prominent human rights and civil society activists so far in 2013 on charges solely related to their peaceful exercise of their rights to free expression and association, including Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights co-founders Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani, jailed for 11 and 10 years respectively.
“Saudi authorities need to call off this campaign of repression against activists across the country,” Stork said. “King Abdullah needs to end these abuses if he wants his legacy to be reform and not repression.”