Saudi Arabia jails lawyer and human rights activist in ongoing crackdown on dissent

Saudi Arabia must immediately release prominent human rights activist and lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, who was arrested following his fifth hearing at the Specialized Criminal Court on Tuesday and taken to al-Ha’ir prison without an explanation, said Amnesty International.

Waleed Abu al-Khair was detained in connection with his human rights work. He is now facing charges almost identical ones he was convicted of by another criminal court back in October 2013.

“Authorities in Saudi Arabia are clearly punishing Waleed Abu al-Khair for his work protecting and defending human rights. He is a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Said Boumedouha Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“Waleed Abu al-Khair’s detention is a worrying example of how Saudi Arabian authorities are abusing the justice system to silence peaceful dissent. Nobody should be jailed for peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression.”

Waleed Abu al-Khair is among a dozen prominent activists who were all sentenced in 2013 to long prison terms based on trumped-up charges that the authorities resorted to after failing to silence them by other means, including the threat of prosecution and other extra-judicial means of intimidation.

He was brought before the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh on 6 October 2013, on charges that included, among other things, “breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler”, “disrespecting the authorities”, “offending the judiciary”, “inciting international organisations against the Kingdom” and “founding an unlicensed organization”.

Three weeks later, on 29 October 2013another criminal court in Jeddah sentenced him to three months in prison on similar charges related to ridiculing or offending the Saudi Arabian judiciary. The Court of Appeal upheld his conviction and sentence on 6 February 2014. In both court cases, evidence for all charges against Waleed Abu al-Khair seem to be based on his signing of a petition that criticized the heavy-handedness of the Saudi Arabian authorities in dealing with 16 reformists.

Waleed Abu al-Khair, head of the Saudi Arabia Monitor of Human Rights, an independent human rights organization founded in 2008, has faced persecution from the Saudi Arabian state before and has been banned from traveling since March 2012.

“Independent activists in Saudi Arabia who dare to peacefully voice their opinions are forced to pay a heavy price. Waleed Abu al-Khair is the latest in a long list of human rights activists who have been harassed, intimidated and imprisoned by the authorities in recent months” said Said Boumedouha.

Speaking earlier this year, Waleed Abu al-Khair told Amnesty International that he, like other activists, had often been pressured to stop their work.

“This is a campaign that affects all human right defenders in Saudi Arabia, the option is either for the activist to sign a pledge to stop his activism and apologize, or to bear the heavy consequences for refusing to do so: prison, travel ban and deprivation of livelihood,” he said.

Despite continued pressure, he has refused to renege on his human rights work.

“I am pleased with what I did, and until now, despite all the harassment, I do not regret my choices. I am still on the right path. If you have a goal to live for, things become easier. My goals are justice, rights, freedom of expression and to be able to stand up and say that the regime is unfair,” he told Amnesty International.

Waleed Abu al-Khair has represented many victims of human rights violations. 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. One of the charges levelled against Raif Badawi was insulting religious authorities by creating and managing a website.