Last night’s royal decree offering pardons for Saudi Arabian prisoners convicted on “public rights” charges will only be a step in the right direction if the releases do not carry conditions, Amnesty International said.
The announcement of the impending pardons came as part of the new King Salman’s latest set of royal decrees, issued at 11:35pm local time on Thursday.
“It’s a positive move for the Saudi Arabian authorities to consider releasing political prisoners as part of reforms under the new government. But any releases that impose conditions on the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly would be a slap in the face to activists who should not have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme Director.
Yesterday’s royal decree referred to an official communication issued two days earlier stating that it would be up to the Minister of Interior to decide on the extent and conditions of the pardon.
“This is akin to the fox guarding the henhouse since the Ministry of Interior has been the main authority implicated in silencing activists and imprisoning them in the first place,” said Philip Luther.
The Saudi Arabian authorities have in the past offered to drop charges against activists if they apologized for their “offences” and halted their legitimate activities. This has typically meant that activists have had to stop their work and give up their right to free expression.
Amnesty International has learnt that officials have approached current prisoners of conscience this past week to unofficially inquire about their thoughts on such potential conditional pardons.
“It would be outrageous if yesterday’s royal pardon turned out to be conditional on activists apologizing and signing pledges not to repeat their ‘offences’. Prisoners of conscience should be released immediately and unconditionally. An unconditional pardon would be the first step, but it should be followed by their sentences and convictions being overturned because they did nothing wrong in the first place,” said Philip Luther.
Amnesty International has named more than a dozen prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia, who are behind bars for their peaceful activism. They include Raif Badawi, Waleed Abu al-Khair, Sheikh Suliaman al-Rashudi, Dr Abdullah al-Hamid, Dr Mohammed al-Qahtani, Dr Abdulaziz al-Khodr, Mohammed al-Bajadi, Fowzan al-Harbi, Dr Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Saleh al-Ashwan, Omar al-Sa’id, Fadhel al-Manasif, Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysaa al-Amoudi.