Saudi Arabia punishes two activists for voicing opinion

The sentencing of two human rights activists to five and 10 years’ imprisonment in Saudi Arabia is yet another stain on the country’s record when it comes to attacking free expression, Amnesty International said today as it named the activists “prisoners of conscience”.

Dr Abdullah bin Hamid bin Ali al-Hamid, 66, and Mohammad bin Fahad bin Muflih al-Qahtani, 47, co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), a human rights organization that helps many families of detainees held without charge or trial, were sentenced to five and 10 years in prison respectively.

Travel bans equal in length to their terms of imprisonment will also be applied to them after they finish serving their prison sentences.

The court also ordered the disbanding of the organization, confiscation of its property and the shutting down of its social media accounts.

“The sentencing of Dr Abdullah al-Hamid and Muhammad al-Qahtani puts into stark relief the Saudi Arabian authorities’ inability to deal with any opinion that contradicts their own,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

“We consider that the two human rights activists have been imprisoned solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association and are therefore prisoners of conscience who should be released immediately and unconditionally.”

On 9 March 2013, the Criminal Court in Riyadh found Dr Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani guilty of a list of charges, including breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler, questioning the integrity of officials, seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations, disseminating false information to foreign groups and forming an unlicensed organization.

The charge of questioning the integrity of officials is believed to refer to them accusing the judiciary of accepting confessions made under duress.

According to journalists and activists who attended it, the trial was open to the public but attended by security officials dressed in plain clothes, who, by sheer weight of numbers, effectively prevented some human rights activists who wanted to attend from doing so.

In 2008, Dr Abdullah al-Hamid served a four-month prison sentence for “incitement to protest” after supporting a peaceful demonstration by women calling for the release or fair trial of relatives detained without charge or trial.

In May 2005, he was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment on charges including “showing dissent and disobeying the ruler” after calling for political reform in 2004. He and others were released after a royal pardon was granted on 8 August 2005.

Founded in 2009, ACPRA has been one of the very few independent human rights organizations in Saudi Arabia and one of the most active.

In 2012, Mohammed Saleh al-Bajady, also one of the co-founders of ACPRA, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and a five-year travel ban by Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court, set up to deal with terrorism and security-related cases. His legal defence team were not allowed to visit him following his arrest or attend his trial.

They were told that their right to represent him was not recognized by the court, and were not allowed in to hearings despite standing outside the court for hours. Since then he has gone on hunger strike multiple times and was threatened with punishment and forced feeding if he continued.

“Part of the role of human rights activists in all countries is to question and criticize authorities where they believe there has been wrongdoing,” said Luther.

“Instead of punishing activists for doing this and for forming organizations to promote human rights, authorities in Saudi Arabia should open a dialogue with them, for the benefit of all in the country.”