Ministry of the Interior in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. © RGB Ventures / SuperStock / Alamy Stock Photo

(Beirut) – A Saudi court sentenced a Yemeni blogger to jail and then deportation to Yemen for a social media post supporting equal rights for all in Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said today. After a trial in which he was provided no counsel, Mohamad al-Bokari, a Yemeni living in Riyadh, was sentenced on July 20, 2020 to 10 months in prison and a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals (US$2,700). Al-Bokari has 30 days to appeal.   

The authorities arrested al-Bokari, 29, on April 8 for posting a video on social media calling for equal rights, including for gay people. He had fled Yemen in June 2019 after Yemeni armed groups threatened to kill him and has since been living in Saudi Arabia as an undocumented migrant. A source in contact with al-Bokari told Human Rights Watch that before his trial, he was held in solitary confinement for six weeks in al-Malaz prison in Riyadh, in a hot and humid cell with no windows, no air-conditioning, and insufficient ventilation.

“Saudi Arabia’s public relations campaigns tout the kingdom’s ‘progress,’ but the court’s jail sentence for peaceful speech and then deportation to Yemen where the defendant’s life is at risk shows how hollow these claims are,” said Rasha Younes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia should match rhetoric with reality and drop the case and the deportation against al-Bokari immediately.”

The source told Human Rights Watch that after his sentencing, al-Bokari was returned to a shared cell with other prisoners who have verbally abused him, including by calling him a “devil worshipper” who “deserves the death penalty.”

The source said that since al-Bokari was sentenced, his health had rapidly deteriorated and he was transferred to a hospital. Al-Bokari, who suffers from a chronic heart condition, underwent an electrocardiogram (ECG), and was discharged without being informed of the test results. The doctors denied that he had a heart condition and denied him access to medication, said the source, who believes he is “on the verge of collapsing.”

After al-Bokari’s arrest in April, the source said, security officers subjected him to a forced anal exam, an internationally discredited practice used to seek “proof” of homosexual conduct, that can amount to torture. They continued to beat him and verbally abuse him in detention. 

Al-Bokari was charged with violating public morality by promoting homosexuality online, and “imitating women.” These charges show that the court decision is based on discriminatory accusations against al-Bokari based on his perceived sexual orientation and gender expression, Human Rights Watch said.

The source said al-Bokari told him that the court claimed he “confessed that he fled Yemen because he was ‘imitating women.’” But Human Rights Watch reviewed recorded phone communications and messages via social media in which Yemeni armed groups and private individuals threaten al-Bokari with death, which led him to flee. Deporting him to Yemen on release seems likely to put his life at risk, Human Rights Watch said. It would appear to violate customary international law prohibitions against returning someone to a place where they face a real risk of torture or other grave harm.

Saudi authorities regularly pursue charges against human rights activists based on their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, in violation of international human rights obligations. Saudi Arabia has no written laws concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but judges use principles of uncodified Islamic law to sanction people suspected of having sexual relations outside marriage, including adultery, extramarital and homosexual sex, or other “immoral” acts.

If such activity is discussed online, judges and prosecutors utilize vague provisions of the country’s anti-cybercrime law that criminalize online activity impinging on “public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.”

The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression in article 32. The United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders states that everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to “impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”