(Beirut) – Saudi authorities are still holding a Saudi activist even though his eight-year sentence for protesting the war in Gaza expired on October 5, 2016. Saudi activists said that the man, Khalid al-‘Umair, began a hunger strike in al-Ha’ir prison, south of Riyadh, on October 6 to protest his continued imprisonment.
Activists did not know why Saudi authorities continued to hold al-‘Umair. Based on the Islamic year used in Saudi Arabia, which is about 11 days shorter than a Gregorian year, his sentence was completed on October 5, 2016. Saudi Arabia bans all forms of public protest throughout the country, and has prosecuted dozens of people for protest-related crimes since 2011, sentencing over 25 to death.
“Saudi Arabia’s inexplicable move to hold Khalid al-‘Umair, even though he completed his unjust sentence, points up just how arbitrary the country’s criminal justice system is,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi authorities should immediately release Khalid al-‘Umair so he can go on with his life.”
Human Rights Watch has previously documented cases in which Saudi authorities did not release prisoners who had completed their sentences, leaving them in prison for additional months and years. Often these extended arbitrary detentions were the product of bureaucratic mistakes.
A person with direct knowledge of al-‘Umair’s case told Human Rights Watch that Saudi authorities arrested al-‘Umair and approximately 14 others, among them Saudis and Palestinian residents of Saudi Arabia, on January 1, 2009, as they were approaching al-Nahda street in central Riyadh to begin a protest march against the Israeli bombing of Gaza at that time.
The source said that police released all but al-‘Umair and one other activist, whom they held and interrogated and charged in 2010.
On January 21, 2009, activists submitted a complaint over al-‘Umair’s case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Saudi authorities responded to this complaint in September 2009, stating that al-‘Umair “was detained on a security-related charge, which necessitated his remaining in custody for questioning.”
On May 15, 2011, Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court convicted both men for “breaking obedience with the ruler” and “embarking on a protest.” The protester arrested with al-‘Umair received a three-year sentence on these charges. Al-‘Umair received the same three-year sentence plus five additional years under to Saudi Arabia’s cybercrime law on the pretext that he called for the protest online, leaving him with a sentence of eight years. The sentence began from the day of al-‘Umair’s arrest in 2009.
Al-‘Umair and his co-defendant did not have access to a lawyer during their detention or at trial, the source said. The other defendant was released following the completion of his three-year sentence.
Extending detention following completion of a judicial sentence is arbitrary, and violates both Saudi law and international human rights standards.
“Al-‘Umair never should have spent a day in jail, but now he is faced with the prospect of indefinite arbitrary detention,” Whitson said. “Saudi Arabia should immediately release him.”