(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has stepped up arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of peaceful dissident writers and human rights advocates in 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. In January, a Saudi court sentenced two prominent activists to long jail terms, accusing them of being in contact with international media and human rights organizations. The authorities jailed two others, one of whom remains in detention while under investigation.
Saudi courts have convicted at least 20 prominent activists and dissidents since 2011. Many faced sentences as long as 10 or 15 years on broad, catch-all charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “participating in protests” that do not constitute recognizable crimes.
“Saudi Arabia is trying to silence and lock away anyone who doesn’t toe the official line or dares to express an independent view on politics, religion, or human rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “When will the Saudi authorities understand that talking to the media or an international organization should not be a crime.”
On January 18, Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), the country’s terrorism tribunal, sentenced Nadhir al-Majed, 39, a prominent writer, to seven years in prison and a seven-year ban on travel abroad. The conviction was based on his participation in protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in 2011, over discrimination against the country’s minority Shia community, his communication with international media and human rights organizations, and a series of articles supporting the protests and calling for an end to discrimination against the Shia.
The charges included “slandering the ruler and breaking allegiance with him,” and “sending a group of electronic messages to a number of media outlets and satellite TV channels and human rights organizations,” with all charges based solely on the peaceful expression of his views.
Saudi authorities arrested him on April 17, 2011, at the school where he taught, in the Eastern Province city of Khobar, and detained him for 15 months. They formally charged him in December 2015. He is in al-Ha’ir prison, south of Riyadh. Local human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that al-Majed has not been permitted to call his family or receive visits since his detention on January 18, 2017.
On January 10, the SCC re-sentenced Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, 31, a human rights activist, to eight years in prison, an eight-year travel ban, and an eight-year ban on using social media after his release. The charges against him included “incitement against public order,” “insulting the judiciary,” “describing the ruling Saudi state – unjustly and wrongly – as a police state,” and “participating in an unlicensed association.” In March 2015, prosecutors added the additional charge of “being in touch with outside agencies and sending them reports including many fallacies against the kingdom, which were behind two reports issued by Amnesty International.” Al-Shubaily is a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of Saudi Arabia’s first civic organizations, which called for broad political reform and more pluralistic interpretations of Islamic law. Al-Shubaily remains free on bail while he appeals the ruling.
Saudi authorities have been holding another activist, Essam Koshak, 45, without charge since January 8. Koshak has used social media sites such as Twitter to push for human rights, including highlighting Saudi Arabia’s a repression of peaceful activists and dissidents and advocating for their release. Local activists told Human Rights Watch that the Criminal Investigation Department summoned him for questioning in Mecca on January 8, without giving a reason, and detained him when he arrived. He is in Mecca General Prison.
On January 5, authorities detained Ahmed al-Musheikhis, 45, a founding member of the Adala Center for Human Rights, based in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and held him until February 1, then released him.
The detentions fit a pattern of ongoing repression against peaceful advocates and dissidents, including harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, travel bans, detention, and prosecution. Since 2014, Saudi authorities have tried nearly all peaceful dissidents in the SCC.
Authorities have arrested and prosecuted nearly all activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), which a Saudi court formally dissolved and banned in March 2013. The members faced similar vague charges.
Saudi activists and dissidents currently serving long prison terms based solely on their peaceful activism include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, and Alaa Brinji. Saudi authorities arrested another activist, Issa al-Nukheifi, in December 2016, and he may face trial. Others, including al-Shubaily and Issa al-Hamid, are free while appealing long sentences handed down by the SCC in 2016. Mohammed al-Oteibi and Abdullah Attawi are currently on trial for forming a human rights organization in 2013.
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.”
“Saudi Arabia repeatedly demonstrates its complete intolerance toward citizens who speak out for human rights and reform,” Whitson said.