(Beirut) – Qatari authorities should not deport a prominent Saudi human rights activist who would be at risk of a long prison sentence and possible ill-treatment if forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said today. The activist, Mohammed al-Oteibi, fled to neighboring Qatar in March 2017. He is on trial in Saudi Arabia based on charges related solely to his peaceful human rights work.

Mohammad al-Oteibi is facing criminal charges along with Abdullah al-Attawi for forming a short-lived human rights organization in 2013.

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Al-Oteibi and Abullah al-Attawi, another Saudi activist, face a series of vague charges relating to a short-lived human rights organization they set up in 2013. Human Rights Watch has documented allegations that Saudi officials at detention facilities sometimes subject detainees to torture and other ill-treatment, including at detention facilities run by Saudi Arabia’s Public Security Department (police) and by the General Directorate of Investigation (al-Mabahith).

“No one should be sent back to face an unfair trial and possible ill-treatment based on peaceful human rights work,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East executive director at Human Rights Watch. “Qatari authorities should protect Mohammed al-Oteibi and decline possible Saudi requests to return him.”

Al-Oteibi told Human Rights Watch that Saudi Mabahith officials contacted him on April 19 and 20 requesting his location, and that he informed them that he is in Qatar. His next trial session is in Riyadh on April 25.

The charges against al-Oteibi include “participation in forming an association and announcing it before acquiring the necessary license,” “participation in drafting, issuing, and signing a number of statements …over internet networks that include offending the reputation of the kingdom...,” and “making international human rights organizations hostile to the kingdom by publishing on a social media site false reports about the kingdom...”

Though all the founders of the organization in mid-2013 signed a pledge to halt all human rights activism, the charge sheet states that after monitoring his compliance with the pledge, “it became clear that [Mohammad al-Oteibi] continued with his previous path and a number of his violations of it were documented…” The “violations” the charge sheet goes on to lay out, however, refer only to activities that supposedly occurred prior to the pledge, including “meeting members of and sympathizers with the dissolved [Saudi Association on Civil and Political Rights] ...the last meeting of which occurred on September 14, 2013.”

 
Of the charges against the two men, one is tied to a violation of article 6 of the Saudi cybercrime law, which proscribes “producing something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network,” and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 3 million Saudi Riyals (US$800,000). Human Rights Watch documented Saudi Arabia’s use of its abusive cybercrime law to punish dissidents and activists in its 2016 report 140 Characters.

Similar cases in the past against human rights activists have resulted in prison sentences of between five and 15 years.

Qatar’s return of al-Oteibi might amount to refoulement, which violates the prohibition in customary international law on returning a person to a real risk of persecution – where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion or where there is real risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment or other serious violations of their human rights.

“Saudi Arabia regularly charges its domestic critics with harming the reputation of the country, but prosecutions like this do far more damage to the country’s reputation and often prove that its critics’ complaints are spot on,” Whitson said.