(Beirut) – Saudi authorities on August 11, 2014, forcibly moved an imprisoned rights activist to another prison almost 1,000 kilometers away from his family. Since the arrest of Waleed Abu al-Khair in April, authorities have moved him five times, shuffling him in and out of several facilities, sometimes without explanation. In the latest move, the authorities initially refused to tell his family where he was. He was allowed to call only 24 hours later.
Abu al-Khair’s wife, Samar Badawi, told Human Rights Watch that during the phone call, Abu al-Khair said that officials at Jeddah’s Bureiman prison beat him on his back and dragged him from the prison with chains, injuring his feet, after he refused to cooperate in his transfer to another prison the previous day. Abu al-Khair was moved to al-Malaz prison in Riyadh, over 960 kilometers from his family in Jeddah.
“Abu al-Khair shouldn’t be in prison at all, much less hustled from one prison to another almost a thousand kilometers away from his family,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Saudi authorities should stop tormenting Abu al-Khair and free him immediately and unconditionally.”
Abu al-Khair has been one of Saudi Arabia’s leading human rights advocates for years, and so a thorn in the side of the government. In July, the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, convicted him on a number of broad and vaguely worded charges that stemmed solely from his peaceful activism, including comments to news outlets and on Twitter criticizing Saudi human rights violations. The court sentenced him to 15 years in prison, a 15-year ban on travel abroad, and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Riyals (US$53,000).
Abu al-Khair played no active part in his trial. He refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court or defend himself against the charges. He also refused to sign a copy of the trial judgment or to appeal the conviction or his sentence. Abu al-Khair’s organization, the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, stated on August 12 that it believes his prison transfers are a punitive measure for Abu al-Khair’s refusal to recognize the court.
Following Abu al-Khair’s transfer to Riyadh on August 11, police and prison authorities refused to tell his wife where they had taken him, she said. Abu al-Khair was finally allowed to call her in the afternoon on August 12.
The 1988 UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, states, “If a detained or imprisoned person so requests, he shall if possible be kept in a place of detention or imprisonment reasonably near his usual place of residence.” Prisoners should not be moved arbitrarily, and not as a punitive measure for their political positions.
The 1955 UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners further direct authorities to pay “special attention” to the maintenance of a prisoner’s relations with his family. Both legal instruments also direct authorities to provide prisoners’ families prompt notice of their transfer between locations. The Standard Minimum Rules state, “Every prisoner shall have the right to inform at once his family of his imprisonment or his transfer to another institution.”