(Beirut) – Saudi authorities are seeking to lengthen the prison sentence of a cleric known for supporting protests against the systematic discrimination of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, Human Rights Watch said today.
The cleric, Sheikh Mohammad bin Hassan al-Habib, is serving a seven-year prison sentence for allegedly violating a pledge made to prosecutors, but he faces a second criminal case in which he is again accused of supporting protests and attempting to leave Saudi Arabia for Kuwait illegally. A hearing in the second case is scheduled for May 5, 2019 and is expected to include the verdict. The hearing follows a mass execution on April 23 that included 33 Saudi Shia men who had been convicted following unfair trials of various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses, espionage, and terrorism.
“Saudi Shia hoped that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s supposed ‘reforms’ would reduce entrenched discrimination against them, but judicial harassment of religious leaders and mass executions are just more of the same abusive treatment by authorities,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The increasing repression across Saudi Arabia today is part and parcel of what Saudi Shia have faced for many years.”
Saudi Arabia does not generally tolerate public worship by adherents of other religions and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment. Government-affiliated religious authorities disparage Shia and Sufi interpretations, versions, and understandings of Islam in public statements and documents. Dozens of Saudi Shia are in prison for participating in protests since 2011 calling for full equality and basic rights for all Saudis.
Saudi authorities first targeted al-Habib in December 2012 over several sermons he gave that authorities alleged included content “insulting some religious leaders and authorities, calling for sectarianism, and inciting against the rulers causing disobedience.” They then forced him to sign a pledge not to give sermons with content that they considered objectionable. The authorities arrested al-Habib in July 2016 at the Saudi-Kuwait border as he was attempting to cross and eventually brought him to trial for allegedly violating the pledge, and he has remained in prison since then.
In July 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, the country’s terrorism tribunal, found al-Habib not guilty of violating his pledge because prosecutors had not provided dates for the sermons submitted as evidence that he had broken his promise. An appeals court reversed the ruling, and a second judge convicted al-Habib in January 2018, sentencing him to seven years in prison.
Later that month, prosecutors opened a second criminal case against al-Habib, charging him with “endeavoring to shake the societal fabric and national unity by supporting protests in inciting riots in al-Qatif Governorate,” attempting to leave Saudi Arabia to Kuwait irregularly, and violating the country’s notorious cybercrimes law. The evidence submitted includes contents from his computer, such as a picture of the popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whom Saudi authorities executed in January 2016 following his conviction in an unfair trial.
Human Rights Watch reviewed the charge sheet, in which prosecutors allege that al-Habib discovered he was banned from travelling while attempting to board a flight to Kuwait at Dammam’s King Fahd International Airport in July 2016, and therefore planned to cross the border into Kuwait illegally.
While the charge sheet states that al-Habib attempted with the help of others to cross to Kuwait illegally, it does not describe the attempt in any detail. The only evidence for the alleged escape attempt in the charge sheet is a confession by al-Habib.
One of al-Habib’s family members told Human Rights Watch that he was surprised at the second indictment, which came down quickly after his first conviction. The family member denied that al-Habib had known he was banned from travelling or would face criminal charges. He said that al-Habib had never gone to Dammam airport to try to take a flight to Kuwait to escape trial, and he usually drove to Kuwait since it is within driving distance of where he lives. The family member said that the authorities at the Saudi-Kuwaiti border crossing arrested al-Habib as he attempted to pass through Saudi immigration normally.
The family member said that following his arrest, al-Habib’s relatives were not permitted to see him for about four months while he was held in solitary confinement. He said that al-Habib signed the alleged confession only after his health had deteriorated and interrogators forced him to stand for long periods of time. Given the similar nature of the two cases, the family member told Human Rights Watch he believes that prosecutors were unhappy with the seven-year sentence and are seeking to add to it with the second case.
The May 5 hearing will be the seventh in the case.
“Saudi Arabia’s judicial railroading of Sheikh al-Habib is one more entry in a long list of grievances by Saudi Shia against their government,” Page said. “It does not appear that Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ has any intention of addressing the discrimination against the Saudi Shia.”