Authorities urged to stop arbitrary arrests, travel bans on critics
“Saudi Arabia is redoubling its efforts to punish those who dare to demand democracy and human rights reform,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of imposing arbitrary travel bans and holding activists in long-term detention, Saudi authorities should be respecting basic rights including freedom of expression and movement.”
The latest steps in Saudi Arabia's relentless campaign to quash peaceful political dissent came in late March, when prosecutors banned foreign travel by two prominent rights activists, Muhammad Fahd al-Qahtani and Walid Abu al-Khair.
On March 20, al-Qahtani responded to a summons from Riyadh prosecutors the day before for interrogation about his human rights activities. On March 25, prosecutors imposed a travel ban on him, al-Qahtani told Human Rights Watch.
Jeddah prosecutors summoned Abu al-Khair on March 21, when they showed him an “urgent secret telegram” from the head of the Saudi prosecution service, Shaikh Muhammad al-Abdullah, stating that authorities had imposed an immediate ban on his planned foreign travel for “security reasons.”
Saudis have no judicial means to challenge travel bans.
Abu al-Khair, who founded the internet page Human Rights Monitor in Saudi Arabia, was due to leave for the United States on March 23 to participate as a fellow in the Leaders for Democracy Fellowship, the US State Department's flagship international engagement project. Al-Qahtani, a university professor, is president and co-founder of the Saudi Association of Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), to which Saudi authorities have denied an operating license. Since mid-February, ACPRA has filed more than three dozen court cases against the Interior Ministry's intelligence service, the mabahith, or Department for General Investigations, for arbitrary detention and in some cases also for torture.
Saudi Arabia's prosecution service is part of the Interior Ministry and not independent. Saudi Arabia has no written criminal law, allowing prosecutors and judges to rely on their individual interpretations of Islamic precepts.
Since 2011, Saudi security forces have arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters and dissidents, primarily among Shia Muslim Saudis demonstrating in the Eastern Province. Protests there began in February 2011 and intensified in March, following Saudi Arabia's military support of Bahrain's repression of democracy protests there.
Nadhir al-Majid, a school laboratory technician from Qatif, has been held since April 13, 2011, by the mabahith, accused of corresponding with a foreign journalist, taking part in demonstrations, and vague charges related to his published writings critical of Shia religious doctrine. Fadhil al-Sulaiman, an education official from al-Ahsa, was arrested on March 17, after he led Shia protesters in peacefully demanding the release of prisoners, an end to religious discrimination, and the right to practice their faith freely. He was not immediately informed of the legal reason for his arrest.
Al-Majid's wife, Khadija, told Human Rights Watch that interrogators focused on four articles her husband had written between 2005 and 2009 and published on a local website, The Civilized Dialogue. Three of those articles are critical of Shia religious personalities or doctrine, and a fourth, written in 2007, criticizes the interior minister, Prince Nayef, for “honoring the 'terrorists'” by providing SAR10,000 (about US$2,670) to each Saudi returned from the US prison in Guantanamo on the occasion of their temporary release from Saudi detention for a religious holiday that year.
In December 2011, a person informed al-Majid's family that the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh – a court established in 2008 for crimes against state security, including terrorism – had taken his case, but no hearing date has been set. On March 13, 2012, the same court in Riyadh scheduled the first session in al-Sulaiman's case, but the judge did not show up, al-Sulaiman's lawyer, Dr. Muhammad al-Shakhs, told Human Rights Watch. Al-Shakhs has not been formally notified of charges against his client, but said he informally learned that they relate to participating in a demonstration and resisting law enforcement officers.
Al-Sulaiman's arm was broken during the arrest, which a local activist who spoke to the family said resulted from police use of force. Al-Majid also complained about ill-treatment at the hands of detention officials. His wife told Human Rights Watch that al-Majid spent five months in solitary confinement. When she was first allowed to see him, under the supervision of a guard in September, he told her his jailers had doubled his solitary confinement after two and a half months because he had written, “I am a scholar and the others talk drivel” on his cell wall. She was able to meet with him in a private setting for the first time in January, when al-Majid detailed to her the beatings, kicking, and forced standing for long hours in the interrogation room that he endured in the first days and weeks. The ill-treatment continued although he signed papers and authenticated them in a local court within days of his arrest. Al-Majid was not allowed any exercise for five months, and now is allowed a few minutes every two weeks in the exercise yard, she said.
In Saudi Arabia, ill-treatment other than prolonged solitary confinement most commonly takes place during interrogation and before court authentication of one's statement, Human Rights Watch said.
“Saudi Arabia seems to understand combating torture by arresting rights activists who attempt to sue torture suspects,” said Whitson. “As long as Saudi Arabia can continue to violate rights without criticism, it will be the rights activists and the torture victims, not the perpetrators, who pay a steep price.