A top United Nations official today expressed concern about the arbitrary arrest, trial and detention of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, and urged the authorities to immediately release all those held for their peaceful advocacy of human rights.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she is “deeply dismayed” by the recent conviction of human rights defender Waleed Abu Al-Khair, who was sentenced on 6 July to 15 years in prison. He was also handed a five-year suspended sentence, a travel ban and a heavy fine by a specialised court in Riyadh.
“Abu Al-Khair’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,” Ms. Pillay said in a news release issued by her office (OHCHR).
“I urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release all human rights defenders held in connection with their peaceful advocacy of human rights,” she said.
Ms. Pillay also expressed concern that human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia have been charged with offences that are defined in a “vague manner” in counter-terrorism legislation.
OHCHR noted that Abu Al-Khair was arrested on 15 April in relation to his human rights advocacy activities. He was subsequently charged with several offences, including inciting public opinion against the State and its people, undermining the judicial authorities, inciting international organisations against the Kingdom with the intent of ruining its reputation, establishing a non-registered organisation and with gathering and publishing information, under the 2011 Law for Combatting Cyber-crimes.
He is not alleged to have been involved in any violent activity, and was tried in the Specialised Penal Court, which was set up in 2008 to deal with terrorism cases.
“Proceedings against human rights defenders in the Specialised Penal Court, as well as in other courts in Saudi Arabia, have fallen short of international fair trial standards,” Ms. Pillay said.
“I am also concerned about the harsh sentences handed down in such cases, including long prison terms, heavy fines, travel bans, as well as corporal punishment.”
On 9 March 2013, two other human right defenders, Abdullah Al-Hamid and Mohammad Al-Qahtani, were convicted by the same court for offences, including breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler, questioning the integrity of officials, disseminating false information to foreign groups and forming an unlicensed organisation. The Court handed down sentences of 10 and 11 years in prison, respectively, against the two men, as well as travel bans of equal duration at the end of their prison terms.
Another human rights defender, Fadhel Maki Al-Manasif, was convicted on 30 June 2013 by the Specialised Penal Court on charges including participating in and filming demonstrations, posting these films online and contacting foreign media outlets aiming at undermining the State. He was sentenced to five years in prison, a 15-year travel ban and a fine equivalent to around $26,000.
The conviction of Ra’ef Badawi, a social media activist, on charges of blasphemy, was upheld by an ordinary criminal court on 27 May 2014. He was sentenced to two consecutive five-year prison sentences, a 10-year travel ban, the permanent closure of the Liberal Internet Network website, a 20-year ban on participation in any media outlet and the destruction of his personal computer. The sentence also included corporal punishment in the form of 1,000 lashes to be administered in a public space.
The High Commissioner urged the judicial authorities to immediately put an end to the use of lashing, a corporal punishment that is not in conformity with international human rights law, including the Convention against Torture, which Saudi Arabia has ratified.
“We have also received worrying allegations that human right defenders are subject to ill-treatment while in detention,” Ms. Pillay said. Abu Al-Khair, who was held in the Al-Ha’ir Prison, south of Riyadh, claims that he was subjected to solitary confinement and sleep deprivation and denied access to his lawyer and family.
The High Commissioner urged the Saudi authorities to investigate all allegations of ill-treatment in custody in a prompt, independent and impartial manner, as well as allegations of procedural irregularities in courts, including the Specialised Penal Court.