Silence is King: Prisoners of conscience in the gulf

The 2011 so-called “Arab Spring” has turned into a long winter for advocates of change – political and human rights activists, including prisoners of conscience. Scores who peacefully expressed their opinions, who struggled for fundamental human rights, are now serving long prison terms, including up to life.

Across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, at least 52 prisoners of conscience are today behind bars, imprisoned solely for exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression, association and assembly. They are sacrificing years of their lives for having advocated for change and reform. Their imprisonment has not only silenced them, its chilling effect has effectively spread across the region, where very little, if no space at all, is left for any free expression.

 How states have done it:

  • Resorted to vaguely worded laws and far-reaching provisions in the Penal Codes, Criminal Procedure Laws, Cybercrime and other laws to detain, try and sentence individuals
  • Equated peaceful political activities with threats to state security
  • Severely restricted public gatherings and demonstrations
  • Banned and disbanded independent NGOs and political opposition groups
  • Silenced and locked up the founders of independent NGOs.

Since at least 2011, states have slapped peaceful critics and activists with arbitrary arrests, torture or other ill-treatment, trials that fell short of fair trial standards, and lengthy sentences; they have harassed their family members, imposed travel bans, basically rendering the life of any person wishing to peaceful express any independent opinion impossible.

Today most peaceful activists from the Gulf are either in exile or silenced at home.

More recently, the GCC states used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to continue pre-existing patterns of suppressing the right to freedom of expression. All these states warned their citizens of criminal liability for publishing “false news” or “spreading misinformation”, and in many instances, have prosecuted individuals who posted content on social media about the pandemic or the government’s response. While they released hundreds of prisoners to help contain the pandemic – they have not included prisoners of conscience. 

They must not be forgotten.

Who are some of the prisoners of conscience?


Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja formerly with Front Line Defenders, former President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), founder of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR).

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja began his activism in 1979 at university in London, protesting against the unlawful arrest of citizens in Bahrain. He received political asylum in Denmark in 1991 and later obtained Danish citizenship. He returned to Bahrain with his family in 2001, when Bahrain granted general amnesty for exiles. He co-founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) in 2002.

He was arrested on 9 April 2011 in connection with the anti-government protests. He was among 11 of 13 opposition leaders and activists who were arrested in the spring of 2011 and all were targeted simply for taking part in peaceful protests. Most of them, including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, reported having been tortured during their first few days of detention. Upon receiving his sentence in court, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja shouted, “We shall continue on the path of peaceful resistance!”

He is now serving a life sentence.

Sheikh Ali Salman is the Secretary General of al-Wefaq, what was the country’s main opposition party. He was previously arrested and tried for his perceived critical views of the authorities. 

In 2015 he was sentenced to four years in jail, after an unfair trial, on charges relating to peaceful speeches he made in 2012 and 2014, in which he  spoke about the opposition’s continuing determination to reach power in Bahrain and to hold those responsible for committing human rights abuses to account.

In 2017, Sheikh Ali Salman’s second trial began on a range of spurious intelligence-sharing charges relating to his recorded telephone conversations with the then Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar in 2011.

Sheikh Ali Salman was acquitted in2018, but the prosecution appealed the ruling. By November the same year he was convicted on appeal of “exchanging intelligence information with a foreign country and with those serving its interests to carry out hostile acts against Bahrain, as well as to harm its military, political and economic standing and undermine its national interests” and “delivering and divulging defence secrets to a foreign country, disseminating tendentious news and statements about the internal situation in Bahrain for the sake of undermining its prestige and status”. On 28 January 2019 the Cassation Court upheld his conviction.  

He is now serving a life sentence.


In 2018, Oman sentenced six defendants – including two Emirati nationals from the al-Shuhuh tribe, Rashed Saeed al-Salhadi al-Shahi and Aref Sultan Ahmed al-Shahi, to life imprisonment for “infringement of the country’s independence or unity or the sanctity of its territory” after grossly unfair trials. The charges were based on the six men’s online browsing habits in relation to Oman’s Musandam province and the Shuhuh tribe that lives there. Among the allegations raised against them was that they had attempted to communicate with international organizations about the situation in Musandam.

On 17 November 2020, Oman’s Sultan pardoned four of Omani nationals from this group who were immediately released.


Musandam is a mountainous Omani peninsula projecting into the Strait of Hormuz, separated from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There are tensions between Oman and the UAE over the areas inhabited by the Shuhuh tribe, which is spread across both sides of the border. 

Rashed Saeed al-Salhadi al-Shahi, was arrested on 6 April 2018 in al-Rawda, Musandam, while Aref Sultan Ahmed al-Shahi was arrested in mid-July 2018 at al-Dara border crossing by Oman’s Internal Security Service as he was entering from the UAE.

United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Dr. Mohammed al-Roken
Dr. Mohammed al-Roken

The mass trial, known as the “UAE 94” trial – saw a total of 94 defendants stand trial en masse on charges of establishing an organization that aimed to bring about the government’s overthrow, a charge which they all denied. The defendants included prominent lawyers, judges, academics and student leaders. Among them is Dr Mohammed al-Roken, a human rights lawyer who provided legal assistance to victims of human rights violations in the UAE, including to other human rights defenders.

State Security officers arrested Dr Mohammed al-Roken in July 2012. For three months, his family had no knowledge of his whereabouts. The State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi convicted 69 of the 94 individuals on trial, including eight tried in absentia, and imposed prison sentences ranging from seven to 15 years. The trial was marred by serious procedural irregularities. The court accepted prosecution evidence that consisted largely of “confessions” made by defendants in pre-trial detention. The trial failed to conform to international fair trial standards including because this court’s judgments were final and the law at the time denied the defendants a right to appeal.

In 2007, speaking about the life of political activists in the UAE, Mohammed al-Roken said: “An activist might be praised, might be congratulated for his work, might be clandestinely supported, but there will be no uproar if something happens to him.”

In 2017, he was awarded the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize.

He is now serving a 10-year prison sentence. 

Ahmed Mansoor
Ahmed Mansoor

Human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was arrested on 20 March 2017. In May 2018, he was unfairly convicted of the offence of “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leaders” in connection with his peaceful human rights activism, including posts on social media. His conviction and sentence were upheld at the end of December 2018. He is being held in solitary confinement in Al-Sadr prison in Abu Dhabi in dire conditions. Since his arrest, he has only been permitted to leave his small cell for a handful of family visits, and only once allowed outside in the prison’s exercise yard. In protest, he has been on two separate hunger strikes which have seriously damaged his health. 

Ahmed Mansoor has been the only independent voice still speaking out through his blog and Twitter account against human rights violations from inside the country. As a result, he has faced repeated intimidation, harassment, and death threats from the UAE authorities or their supporters. The authorities have placed him under physical and electronic surveillance: his computer, phone, email and Twitter accounts have all been hacked. In 2015, in response to his courageous work, he won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

While filmed for the 2015 Martin Ennals Award, Ahmed Mansoor said: “There is no way that we can measure the public opinion here [the UAE] because there is no free will. People are afraid to talk. At the same time, people are not going to stop. We are not going to stop, we have to continue […] Removing one stone from the mountain is better than keeping the mountain as it is…”

He is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.


Salman al-Awda
Salman al-Awda

Salman al-Awda, a 63-year-old Saudi reformist religious cleric arrested in September 2017, faces the death penalty in his trial before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC).

Salman al-Awda had been calling for political and democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states since the early 1990s. He was detained in 1994 without charge or trial for five years, and released in 1999, when he continued his calls for reform.

On 7 September 2017, state security officials arrested Sheikh Salman al-Awda from his home without a warrant, a few hours after he posted a tweet encouraging the Qatari and Saudi Arabian authorities to end their diplomatic stand-off. “May God harmonize between their hearts for what is good for their people”, he wrote. According to his family, the authorities had previously asked Salman al-Awda and other prominent figures to tweet in support of the Saudi Arabian government during the dispute with Qatar, but he had refused to do so. He was detained incommunicado and in solitary confinement for the first five months of his detention, with no access to his family or a lawyer, except for one brief phone call a month after his arrest.

In August 2018, Salman al-Awda was brought to trial before the SCC in a secret session, where he was charged on 37 counts, including calling for political and judicial reforms and freedom of expression in the Kingdom. He was also accused of supporting government reforms and “regime change” in the Arab region. In May 2019, he was brought to another trial in a secret session, after which his lawyer informed the family that the Public Prosecutor had sought the death penalty. His trial is ongoing.

Read more about the wave of arrests of 2017 which targeted the last vestiges of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia.

Tweet @salman_alodah to show support and call for his immediate and unconditional release.