Crushing Activists With Harsh Punishments in Saudi Arabia

1By Carolyn Greco

Earlier this week, a Saudi judge increased the sentence of prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair.

Abu Al-Khair was initially sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in July to 15 years in prison with a five-year suspended sentence, a 15-year travel ban after his release, and a fine of about $53,000. The court of appeals removed the suspension and imposed the full 15 year sentence on Monday at the request of the public prosecutor and on recommendation of the SCC.

The SCC was created in 2008 to try suspected terrorists. Yet the charges against Abu Al-Khair stem from his peaceful activism. Abu Al-Khair’s case was brought before the SCC under Saudi Arabia’s new anti-terrorism law, which extends the authorities’ sweeping powers to combat anything it calls terrorism. The “Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing” uses an overly broad definition of terrorism so that words and actions deemed to be “disturbing” public order, “destabilizing the security of society, or the stability of the state,” “revoking the basic law of government,” or “harming the reputation of the state or its standing” may be considered acts of terrorism.

The cases of Abu Al-Khair, Habib Ali al-Maatiq, Hussein Malik al-Salam, Mikhlif al-Shammari, Fadhel al-Manasef, and Jalal Mohamed al-Jamal make clear that the Saudi government uses the SCC to punish peaceful activists and dissidents on politicized charges.

The State Department released a statement of concern following Abu Al-Khair’s sentencing in July: “The United States is troubled by the 15-year prison sentence, travel ban, and steep fine handed down to human rights lawyer and activist Waleed Abu al-Khair… We urge the Saudi government to respect international human rights norms, a point we make to them regularly.”

Then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, also publicly criticized the harsh sentences delivered to Abu Al-Khair and other human rights defenders within days of his sentencing in July 2014. “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,” said Pillay. “Proceedings against human rights defenders in the Specialized Penal Court, as well as in other courts in Saudi Arabia, have fallen short of international fair trial standards.”

Judicial imposition of corporal punishment, including flogging, is prohibited under international human rights law as it violates the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. Yet in Saudi Arabia judicial corporal punishment is not only a frequent occurrence, but a public one.

Just last week, Saudi authorities initiated the first of twenty lashing sessions on blogger Raif Badawi, one of Abu Al-Khair’s former clients, in front of a crowded mosque in Jeddah. Badawi was sentenced in May to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison, and a fine of about $266,600 for creating and managing a liberal website for public debate and insulting Islam. Prior to the first scheduled flogging, U.S. officials called on Saudi Arabia to cancel the brutal punishment and to review Badawi’s case and sentence.

There has been an  international outcry against Badawi’s public flogging, including an appeal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by current U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Badawi’s second session has reportedly been postponed on medical grounds.

Saudi Arabia is one of several Gulf nations that have passed vague counterterrorism laws that rights groups justifiably feared would be used as tools to quash dissent. Saudi Arabia’s own enactment of a vague antiterrorism law in February 2014, just months after its Universal Periodic Review and election to the U.N. Human Rights Council, was viewed as a flagrant disregard for international human rights law and the U.N. mechanisms established for its protection.

Abu Al-Khair, a critic of Saudi Arabia’s 2014 anti-terrorism law, has long objected to the legitimacy of the SCC, which he views as lacking the basic international standards to even try terrorists. Abu Al-Khair’s refusal to retract his views or express remorse after the SCC handed down his original prison term was cited by the public prosecutor during the appeal that resulted in his increased sentence.

Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record and continued targeting of peaceful human rights activists makes a mockery of its membership in the Human Rights Council. If Saudi Arabia is to retain any credibility, it must take grave steps to adhere to its obligation to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” It can start by reforming its terrorism laws, respecting universal freedoms of expression and association, and terminating its torturous practice of corporal punishment.

Not to mention freeing human rights defenders like Abu Al-Khair and Badawi.

Update: The Saudi Arabian Royal Office has referred Badawi’s case to the Supreme Court in Riyadh for review. Badawi’s second lashing session was postponed for a second time after doctors concluded his wounds from the first session conducted on January 9th had not sufficiently healed.

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