(Beirut) – The harsh sentences against leading Saudi rights advocates and an order to shutter a civil and political rights group are major setbacks for rights in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities should release and drop charges against the two leading human rights activists sentenced to long prison terms after a Specialized Criminal Court convicted them on politically-motivated charges on Saturday.
The activists, Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdulla al-Hamid, are co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), a rights organization that has called for greater civil rights in the kingdom. They faced charges including “destabilizing security by calling for protests,” “spreading false information to outside sources,” “undermining national unity,” and “setting up an illegal human rights organization.” The two activists have been sentenced solely for their peaceful advocacy of reform and criticism of human rights violations.
“This is simply an outrageous case, which shows the extremes Saudi authorities are prepared to go to silence moderate advocates of reform and greater respect for human rights”, said Eric Goldstein, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi authorities should immediately release al-Qatani and al-Hamid, drop the charges against them, and end political trials before the Specialized Criminal Court.”
The Specialized Criminal Court began trying the two activists in June 2012. At first, their trials were separate and they were conducted behind closed doors, like most other trials before the Specialized Criminal Court. The judge, however, decided to merge the two cases after their first sessions. The trial continued on camera until the fifth and last session, when the judge finally opened the proceedings and allowed the presence of media, lawyers, and rights activists, who attended in the presence of members of the security forces.
At the final session on Saturday, according to Sabq newspaper, the judge read through the charges at length and likened the activists’ beliefs to those of terrorists, claiming that “calling for a change of the name of the kingdom cannot possibly be reformist.” The newspaper also reported that presiding judge Hammad al-Omar told al-Hamid, after he remarked on the lack of independence of the court, not to question the validity of the sentences, warning him that “judges may add what crimes they deem necessary to the charge list.”
At the end of the trial, Judge Hammad al-Omar sentenced 47-year-old al-Qahtani to ten years’ imprisonment and banned him from travelling abroad for another decade after completing the sentence. He sentenced al-Hamid to serve a five-year prison term in addition to six years of imprisonment imposed previously, but from which he had been released under a royal pardon in 2006. The pardon had been conditioned on his ceasing rights activism. The judge also imposed a five-year travel ban to be served following the sentence. The two men have the right to appeal their sentences within 30 days.
After sentencing, the judge ordered the immediate arrest of the two activists and the dissolution of ACPRA, the confiscation of its assets, and the closure of its website and of all social media accounts linked to ACPRA.
The Saudi government has also targeted and imprisoned other members of ACPRA. Mohammed al-Bejadi, a member of ACPRA, is currently serving a four-year sentence after a Specialized Criminal Court found him guilty in April 2012 of charges including “inciting demonstrations.” ACPRA’s president, Sulaiman al-Rashoody, is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence imposed after a Specialized Criminal Court convicted him of charges including “breaking allegiance to the King.” ACPRA has attempted to register as a legal, independent organization, but the authorities have not permitted this.
Human Rights Watch has previously urged the Saudi authorities to abolish the Specialized Criminal Court. The government set up the court in 2008 in order to try terrorism cases but has increasingly used it to prosecute peaceful dissidents on politically-motivated charges and in proceedings that violate the fundamental right of every accused person to receive a fair trial. Because Saudi Arabia still has no codified criminal law, judges have wide discretion to define what can be considered criminal acts in accordance with their own interpretations of Islamic law and they possess wide sentencing powers to punish acts they deem to be crimes.
The lack of clear and predictable criminal law violates international human rights principles that prohibit arbitrary arrests and guarantee the right of fair trial. Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “No one shall be held guilty of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed.” International human rights standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights ratified by Saudi Arabia, also uphold the right to peaceful assembly and association.
“Rather than imprisoning these and other advocates for peaceful change, the Saudi authorities should be taking steps to comply with their obligations under international human rights law,” Goldstein said. “Calling for basic civil and political rights is not a crime, despite the efforts of Saudi judges to label them as such.”