Saudi regime tortures human rights activist

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Dhu al-Qa'dah 06, 1435 2014-09-01

News & Analysis

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 7, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1435)

Both Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Council have condemned the Saudi regime for harassing and torturing human rights activists for doing no more than peacefully demanding basic rights.

In an unprecedented move, two human rights organizations have taken the Saudi regime to task for harassing, intimidating and mistreating human rights activists in the Kingdom. The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Saudi regime of beating up the well known lawyer and rights activist Waleed Abulkhair while forcibly relocating him last month from a prison in Jeddah to Riyadh some 1,000 km away.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also censured the Saudi regime for harassing human rights activists under a judicial system that has not only failed but that does not meet even the minimum standards of justice. Pillay singled out the case of Abulkhair and called on Saudi authorities to immediately release all those people serving long jail terms merely for peacefully advocating human rights in the Kingdom. Given that there are more than 30,000 political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, the world is finally beginning to take notice of the Kingdom’s crimes even if Western regimes turn a blind eye because it is seen as a cash cow and as a staunch ally of the Zionist regime in occupied Palestine.

Hitherto, the Saudi regime has been treated with kid gloves and often gets away with a slap on the wrist but its crimes are becoming so egregious that Western organizations are no longer able to brush them under the rug. The case of Abulkhair has especially caught the attention of various organizations. He has faced harassment since 2010 when he challenged the regime for allowing a father to abuse his daughter and preventing her from getting married. Samar Badawi was arrested in April 2010 and charged with “insubordination” by her own father who claimed that as her male guardian, she must abide by his commands.

Abulkhair successfully challenged her detention and won her release in October 2010. Soon thereafter, he married her but that did not end his travails. In fact, his stand on women’s issues and his support for calls for reforms in the archaic kingdom touched a raw nerve. Adhering to bedouin customs, men in the kingdom treat women as property and commodities. Their Allah-granted (swt) rights are severely restricted. They cannot marry without the consent of a male guardian. This goes to ludicrous lengths if a widowed woman has to remarry; she must seek her son’s permission!

Abulkhair’s support of Samar Badawi may have gone without too much fuss had it not been for the fact that the Saudi king himself is holding four of his daughters hostage in Jeddah.

Born from his now-divorced wife, al-‘Anood al-Fayez, the four girls — Sahar, Maha, Hala and Jawaher — all grown up women now, have been held against their will for 13 years. In an open letter addressed to US President Barack Obama on the eve of his meeting with King Abdullah on March 28 (the New York Times and Washington Post refused to publish the letter!), al-‘Anood al-Fayez, who lives in exile in London, wrote, “…their father [King Abdullah] has been holding them inside a high-walled compound for the past 13 years.”

Ms. al-Fayez went on, “My children have been robbed of their right to study, work, start a family, travel and visit me.” They have also been denied adequate food and even medical attention. She further wrote in her open letter to Obama, “The plight of my girls, while sad, is hardly unique. The Saudi king’s law gives males complete and absolute control over women in their families without any regard for their wishes or rights.”

Given the situation that has been confirmed by a former member of the “royal” family, Abulkhair was putting his hand in a hornet’s nest. He was challenging the Saudi males’ manliness, an unforgivable sin in the Kingdom. He had to be punished and made an example for others. He compounded this by speaking in defence of human rights activists and people calling for reforms. Such calls have landed more than 30,000 Saudis in the regime’s prisons and this number is rising.

The 35-year-old lawyer was imprisoned in Jeddah when he was handed a 15-year sentence in July for criticizing the arrest and sentencing of another activist that had called for political reforms in the Kingdom. Abulkhair was also accused of “insulting the judiciary” and “undermining the regime” by calling for reforms and exposing corruption.

In its statement, Human Rights Watch said Abulkhair was dragged from his cell in chains and beaten after he refused to cooperate with the prison transfer. He was being moved from Jeddah, where his family lives, to a prison in Riyadh. This was the fifth prison transfer since his arrest last April and is meant to create hurdles for members of his family, especially his wife Samar, because they have to travel long distances to see him.

Further, under orders from the regime, prison authorities have imposed severe restrictions on family visits. Each prison has been instructed to demand that Abulkhair’s family must first obtain permission in writing, which is often not forthcoming or delayed, before the family can see him. Moving him between prisons means the family has to apply for permission each time he is relocated. When he was sentenced in July, his wife was refused permission to visit him. When she made an application to the interior ministry to be allowed to see her husband, she was told it would take two weeks before her application is considered. Why that should be the case was not explained.

It is not difficult to speculate: the regime wants to make it as difficult as possible for the family, especially the wife who is also seen as a thorn in its side. It was her plight — she was beaten by her father and then imprisoned in April 2010, which moved Abulkhair to take up her case and secure her release in October of the same year — that has so riled the regime.

Abulkhair initiated an international campaign to secure Samar’s release. It proved highly embarrassing for the regime. The “Free Samar Campaign” is considered the first Saudi Twitter campaign to have real effect. He also had a role in several Saudi social movements in 2011 and wrote numerous petitions demanding civil and political rights, including the right for women to drive. Forbes Middle East named him (in 2011) as one of the top 100 Arab activists on Twitter with more than 40,000 followers.

Since June 2013, Abulkhair has faced various trials because of his human rights work. Charges against him include: “offending the judiciary”; “communicating with foreign agencies”; “asking for a constitutional monarchy”; “participating in media [programs] to distort the reputation of the country”; and “incitement of public opinion against the public order of the country.” In order to augment them, the Saudi king issued a decree in February making all these charges equivalent to indulging in terrorism.

Soon after the new decree came into effect, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and Africa, Joe Stork, issued a scathing statement on March 20. He wrote, “Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism.” Stork went on, “These regulations dash any hope that King Abdullah intends to open a space for peaceful dissent or independent groups.” He also drew attention to the plight of two other prominent human rights activists, Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani who completed the first year of their 11- and 10-year sentences, respectively, on March 9, for doing no more than criticizing the government’s human rights abuses and for membership in an unlicensed political and civil rights organization.

While these human rights activists languished in Saudi prisons, the regime put Abulkhair on trial at the Specialized Criminal Court in Jeddah that was set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases. This was clearly an attempt to humiliate him. Calling for reforms, exposing the regime’s corruption or defending people that call for reforms is considered “terrorism” in the medieval kingdom occupied by the House of Saud.

The court found Abulkhair guilty of “undermining the regime and officials,” “inciting public opinion” and “insulting the judiciary.” He was sentenced to 15 years in jail and fined 200,000 riyals ($53,000). He was also banned from travel for 15 years after he serves his sentence. He has been held in solitary confinement since April. He refused to appeal his sentence because he does not accept the validity of the court, according to his wife Samar.

Even the UN Human Rights Council was moved to issue a statement at such travesty of justice. “Abulkhair’s case is a clear illustration of the continuing trend of harassment of Saudi human rights defenders, several of whom have been convicted for peacefully promoting human rights,” UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay stated in a news release in August. She also said the Saudi legal proceedings against Abulkhair did not conform to international human rights law, including the Convention against Torture.

Abulkhair was among a group of Saudi intellectuals and activists who helped found the organization, Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA). Since his arrest in April, this body as well as any related organizations and websites have been ordered shut down, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

Born in Jeddah in 1979, Abulkhair began his career as a lawyer in 2007. Together with other activists, he established the MHRSA after finishing his Master’s degree in law from Yarmouk University. Registered in Canada in 2012, the group is the first registered Saudi human rights organization.

In 2007, Abulkhair and other activists released a reform petition titled “Parameters of the Constitutional Monarchy.” It calls upon the Saudi ruling family to change the current style of governance from absolute monarchy in which the brother next in line takes over from the one that passes away (according to the Saudi constitution, Chapter 2, under the title, “monarchy” Article 5) to a democratic system, and seeks to ensure the participation of people through free elections.

This is reflected in the Twitter and Facebook campaigns against the regime’s policies. As the lava builds up under the desert sand, it is likely to erupt with such fury that it will blow away the medieval and corrupt rulers into the dustbin of history and bury them for good. Few would shed any tears for them.

One year later, Abulkhair organized a 48-hour hunger strike for prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia, the first strike of its kind for a human rights case in the country. Such activism clearly riles the rulers of Saudi Arabia who clamp down hard on any dissent. Awareness among people in the Arabian Peninsula, however, is growing about the terrible state of affairs.

This is reflected in the Twitter and Facebook campaigns against the regime’s policies. As the lava builds up under the desert sand, it is likely to erupt with such fury that it will blow away the medieval and corrupt rulers into the dustbin of history and bury them for good. Few would shed any tears for them.

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