(Beirut) – The prominent Saudi activist and lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair has completed a year of a 15-year prison term that stems solely from his peaceful criticism of the Saudi government and human rights advocacy.
When he succeeded to the monarchy in January, King Salman issued an amnesty for some Saudi prisoners, but the order excluded prisoners convicted on certain charges. These included “crimes that impinge on national security,” and so excluded Abu al-Khair and other well-known human rights activists such as Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, and Fadhil al-Manasif.
“It speaks volumes that Saudi authorities were willing to pardon and release convicted criminals yet they continue to imprison more than a dozen peaceful activists whose only offense was to highlight abuse and push for reform,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “King Salman should free Abu al-Khair and other activists jailed for peaceful human rights work.”
Abu al-Khair has been one of Saudi Arabia’s leading human rights advocates for years. In July 2014, 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. In addition to sentencing him to prison, the court banned him from travel abroad for another 15 years and fined him 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 to defend himself. He also refused to sign a copy of the trial judgment or to appeal either his conviction or sentence. In January an appeals tribunal within the Specialized Criminal Court overturned in part the earlier ruling following a prosecution appeal, which had suspended 5 years of his term, and ruled instead that Abu al-Khair should serve all 15 years in prison.
Authorities have shuffled Abu al-Khair among three prisons without explanation since his arrest on April 15, 2014, including stints in al-Ha’ir Prison, south of Riyadh, al-Malaz Prison, in Riyadh, and Buraiman Prison, in Jeddah. Since February 2015 Abu al-Khair has been held in al-Ha’ir, over 1,000 kilometers from his wife and family, who live in Jeddah. Abu al-Khair’s first child, Jude, was born in June 2014, following his arrest.
Saudi authorities regularly pursue charges against human rights activists based on their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, in violation of international human rights obligations. The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression under article 32. The only restrictions allowed on the practice of this right are those imposed for “respect for the rights of others, their reputation, or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals.” Under the United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to “impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
“The continued imprisonment of peaceful activists such as Waleed Abu al-Khair signals that, under King Salman, Saudi Arabia still has little tolerance for public criticism or reform advocacy,” Whitson said.