Saudi Arabia: Fears for health of imprisoned human rights defender held incommunicado

Fears are growing for the health and wellbeing of imprisoned human rights defender Mohammed al-Qahtani, who has been held incommunicado after testing positive for Covid-19 in Saudi Arabia’s Al Ha’ir prison, said Amnesty International.  

Mohammed al-Qahtani, co-founder of the now disbanded Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), formerly one of Saudi Arabia’s few independent human rights organizations, is serving a 10-year prison sentence solely for his peaceful activism. His wife told Amnesty International that his family have had no contact with him since he tested positive for Covid-19 10 days ago.  

“By denying Mohammed al-Qahtani contact with his family, they are cruelly blocking his contact with the outside world at a time when communicating with them to reassure them of his health and wellbeing is even more crucial,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

By denying Mohammed al-Qahtani contact with his family, they are cruelly blocking his contact with the outside world at a time when communicating with them to reassure them of his health and wellbeing is even more crucial
Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International

“Prison authorities told Mohammed’s wife that he has been placed in isolation, but this does not justify cutting him off from the outside world.  Covid-19 measures restricting the rights of prisoners must be strictly necessary, time-limited and proportionate – they must not result in de facto solitary confinement or lead to other human rights violations.

“Mohammed al-Qahtani is being unjustly punished for his peaceful activism and should not even be in prison. The Saudi authorities must release him immediately and unconditionally. Pending his release, they must ensure he is allowed to contact his family without any delay and is given adequate medical attention.”

Prisoners in Saudi Arabia are at heightened risk of Covid-19 due to overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of adequate medical attention inside several prisons around the country. At Al Ha’ir prison officials have however started to collect information about which prisoners would like to receive a vaccination. Amnesty International has reiterated its calls on the Saudi Arabian authorities to decongest prisons, starting by immediately releasing all those who have been imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.  

The last known contact Mohammed al-Qahtani had with his family was on 7 April, when he was taken for a Covid-19 test after suffering a fever and body aches. His wife was later informed by the Ministry of Health that he had tested positive. Prison authorities then told her that he had been taken into isolation.

Restrictions on the rights of people deprived of their liberty, including on visitations, need to be minimized and remain strictly necessary and proportionate to the health emergency. Where visitation is restricted for health-related reasons, prison authorities should do all they can to reduce the detrimental effects by providing sufficient alternatives for prisoners to maintain contact with families and the outside world. This should include the provision of free and adequate access to telephone, internet and video communication, as well as to receive food and other supplies as appropriate.

Fears for Mohammed al-Qahtani’s safety intensified following reports from other prisoners’ family members that the number of Covid-19 cases are rapidly increasing in the wing of the prison where he is being held. Prison authorities have made no official announcements about the extent of the spread of Covid-19 inside Al Ha’ir prison.

In April 2020, Dr Abdullah al-Hamid, another founding member of ACPRA who was arrested alongside Mohammed al-Qahtani, died in the same prison after being denied adequate medical care. He had been told by a doctor that he needed to undergo heart surgery. He also reported that prison authorities said they would cut off his contact with his family if he informed them of his condition.