Saudi activist defiant in face of state intimidation

A prominent Saudi Arabian human rights activist taken to court this weekend for calling for a constitutional monarchy told Amnesty International he will not bow to intimidation by the authorities.Waleed Abu al-Khair, who has been studying in the UK but returned to his home country during Ramadan, was summoned to a court in Jeddah on Sunday. When he arrived at the courthouse, there was neither a judge nor a prosecutor present. “The judge’s assistant brought out my file, and told me that I had insulted the judiciary and encouraged people in Saudi Arabia to go against the government. In the eyes of the Saudi judiciary, anyone who calls for a constitutional monarchy is guilty,” the 32 year-old said.Detaining activists calling for reform is nothing new in Saudi Arabia, but activists have become increasingly vocal in recent months. Protesters who have taken to the streets have also been met with repression and detentions. Since the beginning of the year, there have been a number of petitions calling for reforms. Waleed Abu al-Khair, who also organized a petition in February, believes these calls for change triggered a crackdown on dissent. “Recently, the situation for rights activists here has definitely been getting worse,” he said.Mubarak bin Said Bin Zu’air, a 45-year old lawyer, has been held without charge since March after taking part in a peaceful protest in Riyadh calling for the release of long-term political prisoners. Another activist, Mohammad al-Bajadi, co-founder of a Saudi human rights organization, was arrested the following day for attending a protest. He has been charged with “supporting the revolution in Bahrain” and with “forming an organization”. His trial began last month.Amnesty International recently condemned a Saudi draft anti-terrorist law, which the organization believes could be used to stifle peaceful dissent. Waleed Abu Al-Khair and other activists in Saudi Arabia agree with this assessment:“The authorities have seen what happened in other Arab countries. They don’t like what has happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen, where human rights activists were leading the protests. They will stop anyone who tries to do anything in solidarity [with protesters in other Arab countries]. They know that the problem is coming from human rights activists, and they are looking carefully at us,” he said. “The charges against Waleed Abu al-Khair appear to be politically motivated and are yet another example of the Saudi authorities’ complete intolerance of any actions or statements perceived to be critical of the authorities and their system of government,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.No date has been set for the next hearing but Waleed Abu al-Khair has no plans to leave the country until the case against him is over, however long it takes.“I’ve accepted the fact that I may go to prison for this. Other activists, who campaigned for a constitutional monarchy in 2005 were jailed, one of them for nine years. They want to scare me, hoping I will stop speaking out. But I won’t stop speaking my mind. Our country needs reforms, it needs to change.  “We need freedom, like everybody else. We are sick of what is happening in Saudi Arabia and we don’t want to keep silent anymore. Times are changing and activists here are becoming very brave,” he said.