“Our ray of light” – my husband, a jailed activist in Saudi Arabia

By Maha al-Qahtani

Mohammad al-Qahtani, an economics professor and co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of Saudi Arabia’s few independent human rights organizations, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his peaceful activism. His wife, Maha, explains what life has been like for their family since his arrest.

All that is left is a silhouette of memories, stuck in the back of our minds. Memories that we refuse to forget.

I remember our days in Saudi Arabia when we would take the children to school every day, then have our breakfast together before heading off to our jobs. This was our special time, to take it easy and breathe.

I miss the simplicity of that life together. The kids constantly talk about how they wish they could go back in time and spend more time with him.

Lives changed forever

With the start of Mohammad’s trial in June 2012, our lives changed forever. It was when we started receiving threats that we realized the dangers that I and the kids might face and at that moment, I decided we had to leave Saudi Arabia for the United States.

9 March 2013 was a day to remember. It was the day I heard through Twitter that my husband had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a 10-year travel ban. His crime? Documenting human rights abuses and advocating for peaceful political reforms.

When I couldn’t get hold of Mohammad that day, I felt lost. I needed to be strong for the kids but I couldn’t. I was in shock. I had to hear his voice, to talk to him. I feared the worst, and I wasn’t mistaken.

"I felt lost. I needed to be strong for the kids but I couldn’t. I was in shock. I had to hear his voice."
Maha al-Qahtani

No one knew his whereabouts. It wasn’t until the following day when his lawyers visited the judge’s office that we learnt he had been taken to al-Malaz prison in the capital, Riyadh. The judge looked apologetically at Mohammad’s lawyers and said, “I am sorry, the verdict came from above, not from me”.

His lawyers visited him in prison and his message to me was clear: “I am fine, take good care of yourself and the children and do not to worry about me!”

This is my Mohammad, a very loving father to our five children, an amazing husband and a hard-working and selfless man.

Four days after his arrest I finally heard his voice. It was a very short call, but that was all I needed: hearing his voice I found the courage to tell our children what had happened to their father.

Our ray of light

It’s been almost four years since Mohammad was arrested, four long years of living abroad as a single mum and a student. I will not pretend it has been an easy journey. It hasn’t, but at least I can say I am not alone. Although locked behind bars miles away from us, Mohammad has been with me, with us constantly. Without him and his support I couldn’t have done it. He pushes us to live a normal life, to remain positive no matter what happens. He is our ray of light.

Mohammad al-Qahtani. Credit: Private

Yes we miss him a lot, but he tries to be present in every aspect of our life. The children seek his advice when he calls us from prison. He is always encouraging them to keep rising and work hard.

He even participates by phone in the kids’ parent-teacher meetings at school, and if he knows that any of them are unwell or need to go to hospital he is there every second on the phone, calling to make sure they are okay. I’ve never in my life been to hospital alone, all the time he is with me.

Layla our youngest daughter is three years old now. She never had the chance to know her father and play with him, but she loves to sing to him and tell him her stories from daycare and her adventures with our new kitten, Harley Davidson. When she’s missing him she tries relentlessly to convince him to come home.

Strong by his side

Since his detention, Mohammad has been through a lot in prison. 2013 was the hardest year, the authorities tried very hard to break him. They moved him from one ward to another and for no reason separated him and Abdullah al-Hamid, his friend and fellow ACPRA member who was sentenced and detained with him.

We would send him things to the prison but they confiscated them and instead made him buy from the prison store, which is very expensive and sells only poor quality stuff. This kind of mistreatment led Mohammad to go on hunger strike twice.

Mohammad is strong and willing to stand up for his beliefs, and sacrifice himself for a better future for his kids and country.

We took the time we spent with him for granted, but we all wish dearly to see him again. Every day I hope that today is the day that my husband is released, that we can once again live in our country, our home, together again. Until that day we stand strong by his side, never letting his beliefs or our memories of him fade. 

ACPRA members, front from left Abdullah al-Hamid, Waleed Abu al-Khair and Mohammed al-Qahtani. Credit: Private

Please join our call to free ACPRA members

ACPRA was founded in October 2009 and campaigned tirelessly for the rights of political prisoners and detainees until the authorities ordered its closure in March 2013. Today 10 of ACPRA’s 11 founding members are currently either serving lengthy prison sentences, have been sentenced and await detention, or are on trial and facing imprisonment.

Since 2011, the Saudi Arabian authorities have relentlessly repressed all forms of free expression and association. One by one, human rights activists have been monitored and harassed; arrested, interrogated and brought to trial on absurd charges.

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