NAMIBIA – (MintPress) – The harsh sentencing of two prominent human rights activists in Saudi Arabia earlier this month landed between visits from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, both of whom unsurprisingly failed to advocate for the release of the activists or criticize the kingdom for its lack […]
NAMIBIA – (MintPress) – The harsh sentencing of two prominent human rights activists in Saudi Arabia earlier this month landed between visits from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, both of whom unsurprisingly failed to advocate for the release of the activists or criticize the kingdom for its lack of tolerance for political dissent.
Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid bin Ali al Hamid, 66, and Mohammad bin Fahad bin Muflih al-Qahtani, 47, co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), were sentenced to five and 10 years in prison, respectively, on charges including: founding an unlicensed human rights organization, seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder, undermining national unity, breaking allegiance to the ruler, disobeying the ruler and questioning the integrity of officials.
No one was surprised that the activists were found guilty in a monarchy that is known for its brutal intolerance toward political dissent; however, human rights activists and international watchdog organizations were nonetheless outraged at the government’s actions and surprised by the length of the sentences.
“This is simply an outrageous case, which shows the extreme Saudi authorities are prepared to go to silence moderate advocates of reform and greater respect for human rights,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.
Al-Hamid and Al-Qahtani received their verdict on March 9 after more than eight months of trial that began last June. The reading of the verdict by presiding judge Hammad al-Omar took more than an hour to complete. Al-Hamid interrupted the reading to accuse the judge of turning the verdict into a “political statement.”
Each activist will face a five- to 10-year travel ban after being released from prison. The judge also ordered ACPRA, the organization that supports families of detainees held without charge or trial, to be dissolved through the confiscation of its property and the removal of its websites and social media accounts.
“The sentencing of Dr Abdullah al-Hamid and Muhammad al-Qahtani puts into stark relief the Saudi Arabian authorities’ inability to deal with any opinion that contradicts their own,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International.
“We consider that the two human rights activists have been imprisoned solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association and are therefore prisoners of conscience who should be released immediately and unconditionally,” Luther added.
U.S. diplomats praise Saudi support
Just days before Al-Hamid and Al-Qahtani learned of their fate in Saudi Arabia’s prisons, John Kerry finished his first visit to Riyadh as secretary of state, during which he praised the strong cooperation between the two governments on issues of counter-terrorism, nuclear disarmament and peace promotion in the region.
When asked whether Secretary Kerry raised any questions about the two activists during his trip, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland replied — “these sentences came down after we had already left Saudi Arabia. As the Secretary made clear in his own comments in the press conference with Foreign Minister Saud, the issues of human rights and reform progress in Saudi were obviously discussed, as they always are when we are there.”
Nuland added that the United States is “concerned that these two very prominent Saudi human rights activists have been sentenced to prison,” adding that State Department officials “always make strong representations for human rights activists wherever we are around the world.”
A deeper look at the secretary of state’s remarks with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal shows that the only open mention of human rights during their meeting was made to commend Saudi Arabia for its steps to include women in political representation. In his remarks, Kerry said:
“Across the Arab world, men and women have spoken out demanding their universal rights and greater opportunity. Some governments have responded with willingness to reform. Others, as in Syria, have responded with violence. So I want to recognize the Saudi Government for appointing 30 women to the Shura Council and promoting greater economic opportunity for women. Again, we talked about the number of women entering the workforce and the transition that is taking place in the Kingdom. We encourage further inclusive reforms to ensure that all citizens of the Kingdom ultimately enjoy their basic rights and their freedoms.”
Marc Lynch noted on the Foreign Policy Middle East Blog that in seven interviews recorded in Doha on March 5, Kerry was not asked a single question about human rights or reform in the Gulf.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder shared a similar outlook toward Saudi policies during a diplomatic visit to Riyadh on March 10. In a press conference held just one day after Al-Hamid and Al-Qahtani’s verdict was announced, Holder expressed interest in the Saudi Muhasaha (counseling) counter-terrorism program and praised the nation for its judicial reforms.
“I’ve also been impressed by the Justice Minister’s efforts with regard to the justice system here in this great nation. We have exchanged ideas and thoughts,” Holder said. “And my hopes would be that some of the things we’ve tried in the United States may be useful here in Saudi Arabia and some of the ideas that the Justice Minister shared with me, I think, will be productive in the United States as well.”
While the U.S. Attorney General may be impressed with Saudi Arabia’s justice system, several international human rights groups are frustrated with the Kingdom’s misuse of its anti-terror court system to unfairly prosecute peaceful dissidents.
Human Rights Watch has urged Saudi authorities for years to abolish the Specialized Criminal Court, which was designed in 2008 to try terrorism cases. The watchdog groups claims Saudi Arabia has used the court to prosecute peaceful dissidents on politically-motivated charges.
“The Saudi authorities should immediately release al-Qahtani and al-Hamid, drop the charges against them, and end political trials before the Specialized Criminal Court,” said Eric Goldstein from Human Rights Watch. “Rather than imprisoning these and other advocates for peaceful change, the Saudi authorities should be taking steps to comply with their obligations under international human rights law.”
Saudi Arabia has no legal code for criminal law, therefore judges get to define what can be considered criminal acts and determine whatever sentences they deem fit in accordance with their own interpretations of Islamic law. According to Human Rights Watch, “the lack of clear and predictable criminal law violates international human rights principles that prohibit arbitrary arrests and guarantee the right of fair trial.”
While Holder and Kerry did not make any grand gestures during their visits to pressure policy changes on human rights issues in Saudi Arabia, the attorney general did say during the press conference: “We will do all that we can to support those who stand for the rights of the people that they represent and we will do all we can to ensure that the promise of the Arab Spring is in fact realized.”
This statement, however, appeared to be made in support of Egyptians struggling with the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as opposed to activists like Al-Hamid and Al-Qahtani, who are demanding justice in the Gulf countries.
Ongoing protests meet ongoing silence
Despite Saudi Arabia’s attempts to quell protesters and reform activists, Ahmed al Omran wrote on the Foreign Policy Middle East Channel that the jailing of Al-Hamid and Al-Qahtani is unlikely to end calls for reform across the country and that ACPRA activists have already said they will keep trying to pursue their goals.
While Saudi Arabia was able to largely escape the effects of the Arab Spring, several protests of political dissent have erupted across the country over the past two years. According to Waleed Sulais of the Adala Center for Human Rights, the leading human rights group in the Eastern Province, Saudi authorities are responsible for the death of 15 people and 60 injured since 2011.
The majority of Arab Spring-style protests originated in the oil-rich Eastern Province where minority Shia residents face harsh religious and political discrimination. Protesters with a wide range of motives and goals for political and judicial reform have since emerged in other areas of the country as well.
On March 1, roughly 160 activists were arrested in Qassim Province, the ultra-conservative heartland of Saudi Arabia, for illegally protesting outside the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution in Buraida.
The demonstrators gathered in support of dozens of women who were arrested earlier the same week for demanding the release of detained family members being held without charge, trial, or access to lawyers for years — the same issues that ACPRA works to address.
Human rights groups will continue to speak up for activists in Saudi Arabia, but persistent letter writing from NGOs is unlikely to bring about major reforms or the release of activists, unless Western leaders jump on board and start addressing the real issues facing Saudi residents.
Janine Zacharia, a visiting lecturer at Stanford University, explained in an article for the Washington Post, that concerns over oil prices and political turmoil in Syria have further solidified Saudi Arabia’s role as the United States’ main ally in the region.
“Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has always been appalling,” wrote Zacharia. “The chaotic outcome of the Arab revolutions has, regrettably, made the United States and other Western powers even more reluctant to pressure Saudi leaders to promote democratic reforms.”
“With good men facing jail,” added Zacharia, referring to Al-Hamid and Al-Qahtani, “now would be the right time for Western governments — and Washington in particular — to set aside those concerns and do something to try to reverse this trend of Saudi Arabia imprisoning writers and activists.”
Until then, Saudi activists will continue to protest unfair political and judicial policies and subsequently become detained or worse for expressing their views, while Western diplomats like Kerry and Holder put on their rose-tinted glasses and move forward in their quest to spread democracy and fight terrorism.