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Saudi Arabia: Psychiatrist Jailed after Salary Dispute

Likely Unfair Trial, Arbitrary Detention on ‘Terrorism’ Charges

(Beirut) – An Egyptian doctor is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia for links with the banned Muslim Brotherhood following what appears to have been an unfair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The court imprisoned Sabri Shalabi, 66, despite allegations that Saudi prosecutors based the charges largely on forced confessions and apparently in retaliation for a work-related dispute.

Sabri Shalabi. © 2023 Private

A court originally handed down a 20-year prison sentence in August 2022, but it was reduced to 10 years in December 2022 on appeal. The public prosecutor brought the charges after Shalabi won a court case against the Saudi Health Ministry seeking a settlement for years of unpaid compensation. Shalabi remains arbitrarily detained as it approaches one year since the original sentence was handed down.

“Saudi Arabia’s record of politically motivated prosecutions raises grave concerns that Sabri Shalabi may have been targeted in reprisal for claiming money the government owed him,” said Joey Shea, Saudi Arabia and UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi legal system shows no sign of halting its use of vague provisions of the counterterrorism law to criminalize a wide range of peaceful acts that bear no relation to terrorism.”

Court documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced Shalabi to 20 years under article 34 of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism law for “expressing sympathy with a terrorist organization” and 12 years under article 33 for “joining a terrorist organization,” referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia declared as a terrorist organization in 2014. The appeals court reduced the sentence for “expressing sympathy” to 10 years and dropped the other charge.

According to court documents, Shalabi, a psychiatrist, worked at the Tabuk General Health Directorate in northwest Saudi Arabia from 2006 until 2019. In 2016, a source close to the family told Human Rights Watch, Shalabi discovered that he had been receiving the lesser salary of a resident doctor with a bachelor’s degree rather than a doctor with an additional diploma in psychiatry. Shalabi filed suit against the Health Directorate to recover his lost salary.

In December 2019, a Saudi court upheld Shalabi’s claim, ordering the directorate to pay him his lost salary covering the years 2006-2019. The family member said that the directorate appealed the decision, abruptly fired him, and, as his sponsor under the kafala (visa sponsorship) system, issued a final exit visa to Shalabi and his wife, which would require them to leave the country.

On January 28, 2020, just days before an appeals court decision in his civil case, plain clothes police appeared at Shalabi’s home in the town of Al-Wajh in Tabuk province. They did not show a warrant but confiscated Shalabi’s devices, memory cards, and his wife’s passport and detained him, said a source close to the family. 

The authorities held Shalabi incommunicado for three days, then allowed him to call his wife, but told him that he could not reveal his location. Shalabi called two weeks later, confirming that he was in al-Dhahban prison, north of Jeddah. The source said that after a month in custody without charge, Shalabi informed his family that Saudi authorities intended to charge him with expressing sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood and voting for Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate and later the president of Egypt, in the 2012 presidential elections.

On February 2, 2020, the court ordered the Directorate to compensate Shalabi only for the period between 2009 and 2019 due to a 10-year time limit in the applicable law. The family member said that neither Shalabi nor his family have received any payment.

Court documents indicate that Saudi authorities based their allegations against Shalabi on confessions of two other codefendants in the case, intelligence confirmed by Egyptian National Security, and “field investigations.” The other codefendants, Sayed Mustafa and Faris Ahmed, who worked at Al-Wajh Hospital with Shalabi, said in court that they signed their confessions, including allegations of Shalabi’s involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood, under threat of solitary confinement and prohibiting contact with their families.

Proceedings began at the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court, on January 14, 2021. The family member said that the authorities did not allow Shalabi to speak to his assigned public defense lawyer before the hearings, and the only time they managed to speak was during the hearings. Shalabi wrote his defense in detention and the public defender read it out to the court. Shalabi’s family and Egyptian embassy representatives were refused entry to the sentencing hearing, the source said.

After Shalabi’s sentencing in August 2022, the source said, Shalabi’s family hired a lawyer, who successfully appealed Shalabi’s sentence. The family member said that Shalabi filed an additional appeal to the Supreme Court in December 2022, which remains before the court.

The authorities held Shalabi in solitary confinement in al-Dhahban prison for nine months, then moved him in October 2020 to Abha prison in Asir province in southwest Saudi Arabia, where he remains. Another source close to the family said that Saudi authorities have subjected Shalabi to physical and psychological abuse, such as harassment for speaking on the phone about his case with the Health Ministry. The source said he has been held in prolonged solitary confinement, which can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. During solitary confinement, Shalabi went on a hunger strike and was hospitalized for two or three weeks, the source said.

The sources said that Shalabi suffers from severe back pain, asthma, and diabetes. Shalabi has repeatedly requested referrals to a neurologist for the back pain, even at his own expense, but has been refused. The source said that Shalabi has developed cataracts while in prison. 

Human Rights Watch has long documented the Saudi government’s flagrant abuse of the vague provisions in its counterterrorism law and anti-cybercrime law to harshly punish people based solely on peaceful speech and acts, in violation of its international human rights obligations.

“Saudi authorities are spending billions of dollars hosting major sporting and entertainment events to deflect from the country’s poor human rights record while denying Shalabi and so many others the basic right to due process and a fair trial,” Shea said.

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