Saudi Arabia cannot go on throwing every decent person who speaks out on human rights into jail

If the King really wants his country to be a ‘pioneering global model of excellence on all fronts’ then what is he doing shutting Saudis who want basic freedoms and rights in the clink?

Robert Fisk
Wednesday 19 October 2016 15:33 BST
Activists who have spoken out about human rights abuses have been given lengthy prison sentences and travel bans just for expressing their views
Activists who have spoken out about human rights abuses have been given lengthy prison sentences and travel bans just for expressing their views

Poor old Dr Abdullah al-Hamid. He founded the Committee to Defend Legitimate Rights in Saudi Arabia in 1992 and has been in and out of prison ever since.

He wanted a constitutional monarchy, and four years ago he faced 13 charges in the Riyadh Criminal Court – including the grave offence of “promoting peaceful protests” and “establishing an unlicensed civil society organisation”. Had he not been a Saudi, this might have been a case of “off with his head”.

But in March 2013, the court showed its leniency: five years in the slammer (plus six years from a previous sentence) for breaking a promise not to pursue further political activities and a subsequent 10-year travel ban. But now al-Hamid is “under investigation” in prison – for sending, earlier this year, a letter to His Majesty King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and head of the House of Saud, a letter entitled: “The Flaws of Despotism”.

Despotism? DESPOTISM? What could this man be talking about?

Saudi Arabia is so close to the bosom of British democracy, you may recall, that when 80-year-old Salman’s half brother, King Abdullah, died last year, David Cameron, a former British prime minister, lowered the flag of the United Kingdom to half-mast as a sign of our condolence. What we were mourning was never quite clear. An oil potentate? A “moderate” – if we forget his countrymen: bin Laden, 15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 and his Shiite opponents (including Nimr al-Nimr) who had their heads chopped off by Salman – whose citizens seemed to send a lot of cash to Isis? Or a despot?

Either way, al-Hamid and his fellow members of ACPRA, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association – which has peacefully sought a constitutional monarchy, an elected parliament, and an independent judiciary – are not getting much of a hearing in the Kingdom. In fact, no hearing at all.

So let’s take a look at the mournful list of some of its members and what has happened to them.

Mohamed Saleh al-Bajadi, who once founded a Forum for Cultural Debate in Saudi Arabia, was arrested several times for his demands to end torture and arbitrary arrest, and for “inciting protests”. Charges against the 38-year old included “harming the country’s reputation”, “questioning the independence of the judiciary” and “harming the image of the state”. He was put on secret trial in August 2011 and his lawyers were denied access to him. He got four years from the “Specialised Criminal Court” and a travel ban, was released three years ago, almost immediately re-arrested, and then a court of appeal overturned the sentence – upon which al-Bajadi received another four-year sentence and is currently on probation.

Then we have Saleh al-Ashwan, 30 years old, who defended women in detention in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in 2012 and held without trial until 2016 – during time which he was reported to have been tortured – and then finally sentenced this year to five years in prison (and a five-year travel ban) by the same “Specialised Criminal Court” which chucked al-Bajadi into jail.

Sheikh Sulieman al-Rashudi, who, despite being a lawyer and former judge – and 79 years old – is currently serving the last 10 years of a 15-year sentence, which is to be followed by a 15-year travel ban. His crimes since 1993: demanding constitutional reforms, “breaking allegiance with the King”, “establishing a secret [sic] organisation” and “financing terrorism”. The preposterous nature of all this is illustrated by the fact that by the time al-Rashudi’s travel ban expires, he will be 106 years old. Well, long life to him.

Dr Mohammad al-Qahtani is only 51, but he’s serving the last seven years of a 10-year sentence for “inciting dissent and breaking allegiance with the ruler”, “questioning the integrity of the officials and the supreme scholars”, “antagonising international organisations against the Saudi Government by disseminating false information” and “using the Internet to disseminate opinions…against the government”. Al-Qahtani is a founder member of ACPRA, holds a PhD in economics from Indiana University and used to teach political economy in the Kingdom. His current address: Hayer High Security Prison, 25 miles south of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

So, back to Dr Abdullah al-Hamid, a 65-year-old writer. He was charged in June 2012 in the Riyadh Criminal Court with “promoting peaceful protests”, causing public disorder and unrest, “establishing an unlicensed civil society organisation” and “making false testimonies to foreign organisations”. Three and a half years ago, he received a five-year prison sentence – in addition to another six from a previous sentence – for breaking a promise not to pursue civil rights demands. And he’s the guy who’s now “under investigation” for having sent to King Salman – this year – the letter headed “The Flaws of Despotism”.

Footage shows extent of child malnutrition in Yemen as Britain continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia

I haven’t yet received a copy of this treatise – I am looking forward to it – but the title alone raises many questions. After all, if the King really wants his country to be a “pioneering global model of excellence on all fronts”, as he claimed in his “Vision 2030” speech, then what on earth is he doing when he throws Saudis who want basic freedoms and rights into the clink?

A truly visionary monarch – less influenced, perhaps, by his warlike defence minister Prince Mohamed (Salman’s son by his third wife and the chap who launched the Yemen military fiasco) might have embraced these men as patriotic Saudis who want to help him bring his country into the real vision of 2030. But, no; they must be enemies of the state if they speak so freely – even if they still want a monarchy, albeit constitutional.

Their case has been taken up by Alkarama, the Swiss-founded human rights group largely funded by multi-millionaire Qatari businessman Khalifa Mohamed Al-Rabban which has dubbed Saudi Arabia ‘the kingdom of arbitrary detention”. When I asked its Gulf human rights officer, Michelle Wazzan, why such humble dissidents should trouble the Kingdom, she talked about fear.

“Their ideas resonate with the people,” she said. “It’s coming to people in the streets. They make people feel they should ask for their rights – not just a constitutional monarchy, but entrenching their rights in a document. I think this is scary to the Saudi government… There is a fear of the people and anything that goes against the doctrine of the state. Hanging onto traditions and very strict values make it easier to do what you want to do.”

Maybe so. But can this last forever?

Imprisoning people on nonsensical charges was once described by Churchill as “tomfoolery”. And that’s what this is. It is tomfoolery to lock up these decent men. It is also a sign of decrepit thinking. Surely freeing them from jail and giving them a voice must be easier than bombing Yemen back into the Stone Age?

When you look at these ridiculous sentences, it is surely the rulers of this nation, not its prisoners, who are “harming the country’s reputation”.

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