Saudi Arabia ramps up clampdown on human rights activists

A prominent Saudi Arabian human rights defender was brought before a Riyadh court on Monday on 11 activism-related charges in the latest example of what Amnesty International called a “troubling string of court cases” aimed at silencing human rights campaigners. The charges against 46-year-old Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani relate to his human rights activism. They include setting up an unlicensed organization, understood to be the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) of which he is a founding member, “breaking allegiance to the ruler”, accusing the judiciary of allowing torture and accepting confessions made under duress, describing the Saudi Arabian authorities as a police state, inciting public opinion by accusing authorities of human rights violations, and turning international organizations against the Kingdom. His appearance in Riyadh’s Criminal Court is part of a series of recent trials aimed at silencing human rights activists in the Kingdom. “The Saudi Arabian authorities’ trial of Mohammad al-Qahtani is just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the Kingdom’s human rights activists,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “The case against him should be thrown out of court as it appears to be based solely on his legitimate work to defend human rights in Saudi Arabia and his sharp criticism of the authorities.”The Saudi Arabian authorities have recently targeted a number of human rights defenders, both through the courts and through arbitrary measures such as the imposition of travel bans. On 11 June, 65-year-old Dr Abdullah al-Hamid, a well-known advocate of reform and another of ACPRA’s founders, also went on trial at Riyadh’s Criminal Court, charged with a long list of offences. Most are similar to those with which Mohammad al-Qahtani is charged and relate to his human rights work. He is also charged with inciting disorder, including by drafting and publishing a statement calling for protests.Several human rights activists were present at his trial hearing, including Mohammad al-Qahtani, who was only then informed that he was to be brought to trial a week later. The trials of both Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid are due to resume on 1 September 2012. They along with academic Dr Abdulkareem Yousef al-Khoder, another founder and current President of ACPRA, have been under investigation by the Public Prosecution since March 2012. ACPRA was set up in October 2009. As well as reporting on human rights violations, it has helped many families of detainees held without charge or trial to bring cases against the Ministry of Interior before the Board of Grievances, an administrative court with jurisdiction to consider complaints against the state and its public services.“Instead of cracking down on leading members of ACPRA, the Saudi Arabian authorities should be investigating the reports of human rights violations by the state that they and others have been documenting,” said Philip Luther.In another ongoing case, 57-year-old human rights defender and writer Mikhlif bin Daham al-Shammari faces a litany of charges, including trying to harm the reputation of the Kingdom in international media, communicating with suspect organizations and accusing state organs of corruption. Mikhlif is well known for his critical writings about human rights violations and corruption. He was released in February this year on bail, after more than a year and a half in detention for an article he published criticizing what he said was prejudice by Sunni religious scholars against members of the Shi’a minority and their beliefs. In April 2012 the authorities informed him he was banned from leaving the country for 10 years.  His trial in the Specialized Criminal Court – which was set up to try terrorism suspects – began on 7 March 2012 and his next session is scheduled for 26 June. Another human rights activist, 33-year-old Waleed Abu al-Kheir, is still fighting a case against him for disrespecting the judiciary and harming the reputation of the Kingdom by giving an international organization false information about his wife Samar Badawi. His trial before the Criminal Court in Jeddah began in September 2011.He also had a travel ban imposed on him in March 2012, just days before he planned to attend a democracy course at a US university. Amnesty International has previously said the ban was unjustified and called for it to be lifted immediately. “Through trials based on spurious charges and arbitrary restrictive measures like travel bans, Saudi Arabian authorities are engaged in a campaign to cow human rights defenders into submission,” said Philip Luther. “This must come to an end and human rights defenders must be allowed to carry on their crucial work to expose human rights violations and call for justice and accountability.”“All charges related to peacefully exercising the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly must be quashed. If any of the human rights defenders were to be detained on such charges we would call for their immediate and unconditional release”.