This Is Why Saudi Activists Fight for Human Rights

Saudi human rights defenders fight for the rights of everyone in Saudi Arabia – no matter who they are.

The campaign #ThisisWhyWeDefendRights highlights why human rights defenders are important for Saudi Arabian society. The Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman has a vision for his country. He wants ‘a thriving country in which all citizens can fulfil their dreams, hopes and ambitions’, according to Vision 2030.

Human rights activists, academics, journalists and concerned citizens and residents play an integral role for Saudi Arabia to realise this vision. They are not the enemy; they are dynamic drivers of positive reform. Their protests, writing and advocacy for social and political reforms are geared to ensuring greater rights protection for all people in Saudi Arabia. Out of love for their country, they expose abuses and demand redress. They work on issues such as restrictions to freedom of expression, unfair trials, discrimination and inequality between men and women. They know that fighting these injustices can get them in trouble with the government. The risk of lengthy prison sentences, travel bans – even corporal punishment or a death sentence – hangs over their heads.

In spite of it all, they have continued to fight for change. Many human rights defenders are currently imprisoned for their work, and Amnesty continues to campaign for their release. It is important to remember what these activists are trying to achieve: they want to create a better future for all people in Saudi Arabia.

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Here are the stories of three human rights defenders who have fought for the rights of all: Mohammad al-Qahtani fought for the rights of all Saudis to a fair trial; Waleed Abu al-Khair fought for the right to freedom of expression and Loujian al-Hathloul fought for the right to drive and the end of the repressive guardianship system.

The vision of Mohammed al-Qahtani

Al-Qahtani wants reforms, and for human rights to be respected in his country. He wants to help the authorities make improvements in the justice system and beyond. Together with others, he founded the organisation, Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). ACPRA’s founding document committed it to the promotion of a distinctly Islamic concept of human rights, based on values such as justice, freedom, cultural and political diversity, and forgiveness.

We are trying to push the limits so our children can live in a world where their fundamental rights are respected

Mohammed al-Qahtani, Saudi human rights defender

ACPRA called for the protection and promotion of human rights through peaceful means, including research and documentation of human rights violations and providing legal support for detainees and their families. ACPRA members spoke out against the authorities’ arbitrary detention practices and was particularly critical of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior, calling it “a state within a state” because of the excessive powers it wields.

10-year prison sentence ACPRA presented a profound challenge to the authorities’ human rights record, and by daring to do so, its members put themselves at risk. In 2013, al-Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison for ‘founding an organisation without permission’ and ‘inciting rioting through demonstrations’. Ten other ACPRA founding members are also serving long prison terms.

The vision of Waleed Abu al-Khair

Waleed Abu al-Khair also fights for a just Saudi Arabia. He accepted the fact that this could get him in trouble. As a lawyer, Abu al-Khair defended numerous victims of human rights violations as well as human rights defenders.. Amongst his former clients is Raif Badawi, a well-known Saudi Arabian blogger who was sentenced in July 2013 to seven years in prison and 600 lashes.

My goals are justice, rights, freedom of expression and to be able to stand up and say that the regime is unfair.

Waleed Abu al-Khair

Abu al-Khair also encouraged people to debate and think about a better future in Saudi Arabia. He invited people to his home every week to discuss human rights and other topics.

15-year prison sentence Waleed Abu al-Khair paid a high price for pursuing his vision: in 2014, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His ex-wife, Samar Badawi, who fought for women’s rights and has also been imprisoned since August last year, said the following: ‘[…] that is the price for a free and just society. Someone has to pay the price.’ 

The vision of Loujain al-Hathloul

Loujain al-Hathloul wants women in Saudi Arabia to have the same rights as men. This was so important to her that, even though she was studying in Canada at the time, she returned to Saudi Arabia in 2013 to participate in a campaign. Now famous, this campaign protested the ban on women driving in the country. Al-Hathloul’s father picked her up from the airport, handed her his car keys and filmed her driving home. She posted the video online and instantly became a figurehead of the #Women2Drive campaign. In September 2017, the King issued a decree that allowed women to drive legally from June 2018. This decree is a testament to the activism of Loujain and other women’s rights activists who have been fighting for this right for decades.

I want to see a Saudi Arabia that respects people’s differences and human rights and that would actually open up more opportunities.

Loujain al-Hathloul

However, al-Hathoul aimed for more. In blogs, she informed women of their rights and called on them to stand up for these rights. She is an advocate for ending the male guardianship system, which is an important impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.

Arrested Al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 for her women’s rights activism. Accused of wanting to destabilise Saudi Arabia, she remains detained without charge to this day. During interrogations, al-Hathloul allegedly faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment.


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