For a brief moment today, there looked to be some respite to Saudi Arabia’s relentless crackdown against independent activists. But the moment, like too many in Saudi, quickly passed.
The day started with the surprise announcement that authorities had released blogger Hamza Kashgari in Jeddah after 625 days in a jail cell without charge or trial. Kashgari was detained in February 2012 after he posted three tweets that some conservative religious figures deemed disrespectful to the Prophet Mohammed. Saudi officials went so far as to extradite him from Malaysia as he sought to flee the local hysteria that clerics had stirred up against him.
Upon his release, Kashgari made his first tweet in a year and a half: “mornings of hope and undying spirits … praise to God whose grace is eternal.”
Saudi Arabia did the right thing by letting Kashgari go, but his release is an exception in an otherwise depressing march of human rights and civil society activists to prison cells.
Does Kashgari’s release signal a greater tolerance of independent bloggers and activists? A Jeddah court quickly dispelled that notion within hours of his release by issuing a conviction against human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, sentencing him to three months in prison for merely signing a statement in support of a group of Jeddah-based reformers and Saudi Arabia’s Shia citizens in the Eastern Province town of Qatif.
Though Abu al-Khair intends to appeal this verdict, he is also contending with two other ongoing trials against him based solely on his peaceful activism, including one before Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, the Specialized Criminal Court, on vague catch-all charges including “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “inflaming public opinion against the ruler,” and others. If convicted, he could face more than 10 years in prison.
Saudi authorities should drop the ongoing prosecution of Abu al-Khair and release other activists jailed for exercising their rights to free expression and assembly, including Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Abd al-Kareem al-Khudr, and Raif Badawi.
We can say progress has been made when all the activists are free from their prison cells.