The sentencing of a prominent Saudi Arabian lawyer and human rights defender to 15 years in prison has dealt a fresh blow to peaceful activism and freedom of expression in the Kingdom, said Amnesty International.
The Specialized Criminal Court in Jeddah convicted Waleed Abu al-Khair of a string of “offences” including “inciting international organizations against the government” and “breaking allegiance to the ruler” among others. He will also be subject to a 15-year travel ban after his release.
He is the latest in a long list of human rights activists who have been harassed, intimidated and imprisoned by Saudi Arabia’s authorities in recent months.
Waleed Abu al-Khair has represented many victims of human rights violations. His former client Raif Badawi, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in May for setting up an online forum for public debate.
During his sentencing, the judge invoked article 21 of Saudi Arabia’s repressive new anti-terrorism law in addition to the more commonly cited cyber-crime laws used to imprison activists.
“Waleed Abu al-Khair’s conviction on charges relating to national security is entirely unjustified and provides alarming evidence that the Kingdom’s new anti-terrorism law is going to be used to repress peaceful political dissent,” said Said Boumedouha Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
“By sentencing a peaceful activist to 15 years in prison, Saudi Arabia’s authorities are sending a clear message that vocal critics of the authorities will be severely punished simply for speaking out. Waleed Abu al-Khair is a prisoner of conscience, he must be immediately and unconditionally released and his conviction and sentence must be quashed.”
The Specialized Criminal Court is a security and counter-terrorism related court whose rules and procedures remain secret and which activists claim is under the direct control of the Interior Ministry. Ahead of his sentencing Waleed Abu al-Khair stated that he considered the court illegitimate and the judge to be biased and would refuse to defend himself in court.
Waleed Abu al-Khair’s wife, Samar Badawi, told Amnesty International she was saddened when she first heard the news, but is very proud of her husband: “It is an unjust and oppressive court ruling and Waleed’s position of refusing to recognize the legitimacy of this court and to appeal the decision are honourable,” she said.
“These are 15 years of shame on the Ministry of Interior Courts. I am honoured to be the wife of this free and noble defender. History will expose these masquerades against human rights defenders.”
Waleed Abu al-Khair has been detained since 15 April 2013. He has been moved between different prisons and is currently detained in Briman prison in the coastal city of Jeddah.