Waleed Abu al-Khair: 10 years after his unlawful arrest

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On 15 April 2014, Waleed Abu al-Khair, a Saudi human rights advocate, lawyer and founder of Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA), was arbitrarily arrested for refusing to sign a pledge to stop his human rights activism and thus relinquish his freedom of expression. Ten years after his incarceration, he remains behind bars.

Abu al-Khair was arrested under the 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law that had come into effect only two months before his arrest, making him one of the first people to be arrested under that law. His trial was held in the Specialised Penal Court, established in 2008 to handle terrorism-related cases, which Abu al-Khair did not recognise as a legitimate Court. The Court tried him for terrorism, accusing him of “inciting public opinion against the State and its people” and “inciting international organisations against Saudi Arabia with the intention of ruining its reputation”.  On 16 July 2014, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison (ten years executed and five suspended), and given a 15-year travel ban and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Riyal (around €50,000) for peacefully advocating for human rights in Saudi Arabia.

On 12 January 2015, the Court of Appeal tightened the sentence to 15 years executed, rather than ten executed and five suspended, as Abu al-Khair refused to apologise and recognise the legitimacy of the Specialised Penal Court. This harsher sentence was in response to his unwavering commitment to voice his concerns about Saudi Arabia’s violations, indicating that his sentencing was to further censor and punish him for not supporting the government. This highlights how Saudi Arabia extends sentences arbitrarily and does not follow due process.

Abu al-Khair’s imprisonment for exercising his right to freedom of expression shines a light on Saudi Arabia’s issues of censorship and arbitrary arrests. The fact that his peaceful advocacy work was misrepresented by the Court to become a terrorist case demonstrates the magnitude of Saudi Arabia’s agenda to restrict the freedom of activists and censor any content that highlights its human rights violations. This is an alarming human rights issue that must be taken seriously.

Despite Saudi Arabia amending its counter-terrorism legislation in 2017, ADHRB’s analysis showed that the definition of terrorism remains vague. Given that judges hold discretionary power, activists can still be tried as terrorists for peacefully speaking out against the government. As a result, Saudi Arabia must further amend its legislation to ensure that peaceful activists cannot be wrongfully charged.

In addition to his unlawful arrest and arbitrary sentencing, Abu al-Khair has been tortured in prison and denied medical care for his diabetes. The day after he reported being attacked by a fellow prisoner to the authorities on April 18 2015, three guards arbitrarily raided and consequently destroyed his prison cell. His treatment has been appalling and in direct breach of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 1997. By neglecting the human rights of an innocent prisoner, Saudi Arabia has violated international law and must be held accountable. The Special Rapporteur on terrorism recommended that Saudi Arabia release prisoners who were imprisoned for acts that exercised their right to free speech, freedom of thought, and conscience. As part of this, NGOs such as Amnesty International called for Abu al-Khair’s immediate access to medical care and his prompt release.

Saudi Arabia must immediately release Waleed Abu al-Khair, as well as the rest of the prisoners of conscience. He is unfortunately the first amongst a long string of activists who have been tried as terrorists because of their advocacy work. We must push for a change in the counter-terrorist legislation to ensure that activists cannot be unlawfully arrested as terrorists. The international community must continue to advocate for his release and work hard to ensure that Saudi Arabia cannot continue to unjustly arrest innocent people.