(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should immediately release the prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, who was sentenced in 2014 to 15 years in prison solely for his peaceful human rights advocacy, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, convicted Abu al-Khair in July 2014 primarily for his comments to media outlets and tweets criticizing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, especially the country’s harsh sentences against peaceful critics. In addition to his 15-year sentence, the court also issued a 15-year travel ban and imposed a fine of 200,000 Saudi Riyals (US$53,000).
“Stifling peaceful dissent with outrageous sentences has shown the Saudi government’s lack of commitment to serious political and civil reform,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “A serious reform campaign, no matter how Saudi-funded public relations propagandists spin it, doesn’t entail locking up human rights defenders for 15 years for courageously speaking up.”
Abu al-Khair’s trial before the Specialized Criminal Court opened in October 2013. Following his fifth trial session on April 15, 2014, the interior minister issued a detention order, and Abu al-Khair has remained in detention since then. He is in al-Dhahban prison, north of Jeddah.
In its July 2014 decision, the court found Abu al-Khair guilty on six charges: “seeking to remove legitimate authority;” “harming public order in the state and its officials;” “inflaming public opinion and disparaging and insulting judicial authority;” “publicly slandering the judiciary, distorting the kingdom’s reputation, making international organizations hostile to the kingdom, and issuing unverified statements that harm the kingdom’s reputation and incite against it and alienate it;” “founding an unlicensed organization;” and violating Saudi Arabia’s anti-cybercrime law.
Abu al-Khair is a lawyer who has represented several others facing human rights violations as a legal advocate, and also founded Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, a human rights organization that published information about human rights issues in the kingdom. The Justice Ministry, however, refused to license him as a lawyer and the government rejected the registration application for his organization.
In recognition of his human rights work, Abu al-Khair received several prestigious awards, including the Law Society of Upper Canada’s 2016 Human Rights Award, the Olof Palme Prize in 2012, and the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize in 2015.
Other peaceful Saudi dissidents serving harsh sentences solely for their human rights work and who should be immediately released include: Loujain al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassema al-Sadah, Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Raif Badawi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, Alaa Brinji, Nadhir al-Majed, Issa al-Nukheifi, Essam Koshak, Mohammad al-Otaibi, Abdullah al-Attawi, and Fahad al-Fahad.
“Saudi leaders should praise Walid Abu al-Khair for his commitment to defending fellow citizens’ rights,” Page said. “Every day Abu al-Khair remains behind bars, is a reminder that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s ‘reform’ plan is meaningless.”