(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have arrested two independent human rights advocates, most likely because of their peaceful activities, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests of Essam Koshak, 45, and Ahmed al-Musheikhis, 46, are the latest in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing repression campaign against peaceful activists, reformers, journalists, and writers. Saudi authorities also recently banned Jamal Khashoggi, one of the country’s most prominent journalists, from publishing any of his writings in the country.
The Saudi authorities usually try such activists in flawed trials and sentence them to lengthy jail terms on vague charges related to the peaceful exercise of free expression. Saudi authorities should disclose the reasons for the detention of Koshak and al-Musheikhis and, in the absence of any recognizable crime, should release them immediately, Human Rights Watch said.
“Arrests of peaceful advocates show that Saudi Arabia has no intention of allowing the best and brightest of Saudi citizens to express reform-oriented opinions or of moving the country toward tolerance and progress,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “King Salman should put an end to this sustained assault on free expression, free all peaceful activists and writers, and allow them to contribute to the much-needed advancement of the country.”
Koshak is an independent activist and computer engineer who has used social media sites such as Twitter to push for human rights in Saudi Arabia, including highlighting the repression of peaceful activists and dissidents and advocating their release. Local activists told Human Rights Watch that on January 8, 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Criminal Investigation Department summoned Koshak to a police station in Mecca’s Mansour neighborhood for questioning, without giving a reason, and detained him when he arrived. He is in Mecca General Prison. The activists said on January 10 that authorities have not allowed Koshak to appoint a lawyer and extended his detention for four days.
Al-Musheikhis is a founding member of the Adala Center for Human Rights, based in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. He has advocated the release of political dissidents and human rights defenders imprisoned solely for their peaceful advocacy and pushed for criminal justice reform. He has also campaigned for fair treatment of Saudi Shia citizens detained since 2011 over protests calling for an end to government discrimination against the country’s Shia minority. The local activists said that police in the Eastern Province town of Qatif summoned al-Musheikhis on January 5, without giving a reason and detained him when he arrived. They later transferred him to the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution in Dammam for investigation. He is in Dammam General Prison.
“These men should be regarded as the champions of the Saudi Arabia the whole world wants to see, not treated like outlaws,” Whitson said.
While Saudi authorities have not disclosed the reasons for the detentions, they fit a pattern of ongoing repression against peaceful advocates and dissidents, including harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, travel bans, detention, and prosecution.
The ban on Khashoggi was imposed in November 2016, after he criticized Donald Trump at a presentation in Washington, DC, on November 10. On November 18, the Saudi Press Agency stated that Khashoggi does not represent the government of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi courts have convicted at least 25 prominent activists and dissidents since 2011. Many faced sentences as long as 10 or 15 years and most faced broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent, such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “sowing discord,” “inciting public opinion,” “setting up an unlicensed organization,” and vague provisions from the 2007 cybercrime law.
Since 2014, Saudi authorities have tried nearly all peaceful dissidents in the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal.
Authorities have arrested and prosecuted nearly all activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of Saudi Arabia’s first civic organizations, which called for broad political reform in interpretations of Islamic law. A Saudi court formally dissolved and banned the group in March 2013. The members faced similar vague charges, including disparaging and insulting judicial authorities, inciting public opinion, insulting religious leaders, participating in setting up an unlicensed organization, and violating the cybercrime law.
Saudi activists and dissidents currently serving long prison terms based solely on their peaceful activism include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, and Alaa Brinji. Saudi authorities arrested another activist, Issa al-Nukheifi, in December 2016, and he may face trial. Others, including Abdulaziz al-Shubaily and Issa al-Hamid, are free while appealing long sentences handed down by the Specialized Criminal Court in 2016. Mohammed al-Oteibi and Abdullah Attawi are currently on trial for forming a human rights organization in 2013.
The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Article 32. The United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders states that 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.”
“Outlandish sentences against peaceful activists and dissidents demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s complete intolerance toward citizens who speak out for human rights and reform,” Whitson said. “Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be sending people to prison for their peaceful opinions, and these cases certainly have no business in a terrorism court.”