Qatar’s return of al-Oteibi appears to violate the principle of nonrefoulement, 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. Human Rights Watch had called on Qatar on April 25 not to deport al-Oteibi.
“Qatar’s rulers have disregarded Mohammad al-Oteibi’s safety by returning him to an unfair trial and possible ill-treatment in Saudi Arabia,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The apparent violation of the fundamental right of refugees not to be forcibly returned sends a chilling message around the Gulf that human rights activists cannot feel safe.”
A family member of al-Oteibi’s told Human Rights Watch that Qatari authorities detained al-Oteibi at Qatar’s Hamad International Airport on the evening of May 24, as he was attempting to leave Qatar and travel to a third country. The family member confirmed with Qatar authorities that they turned al-Oteibi over to Saudi authorities the next morning. He was not able to challenge his deportation.
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.
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...”
All the founders of the organization in mid-2013 signed a pledge, at the authorities’ insistence, 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…” But the “violations” the charge sheet cites 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 5 and 15 years.
Human Rights Watch has documented allegations that Saudi Public Security Department police and General Directorate of Investigation secret police sometimes torture or otherwise ill-treat their detainees.