Human rights defender Mohammad Al Qahtani remains in detention in Saudi Arabia despite repeated UN calls for his release

Human rights defender Mohammad Al Qahtani remains in detention in Saudi Arabia despite repeated UN calls for his release

On March 9, 2013, Mohammad Al Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment and a 10-year travel ban based on a number of charges related to his human rights work. On November 21, 2022, Al-Qahtani has served his sentence, yet he remains in detention without any contact with the outside world.

Mohammad Fahad Al Qahtani, a human rights defender and co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), was sentenced on March 9, 2013 by the Criminal Court in Riyadh to 10 years of imprisonment and a 10-year travel ban on several charges related to his human rights work including “accusing the judicial and legal system of lack of independence and questioning their integrity”; “antagonising the international organisations against the Saudi government by disseminating false information”; and “using the Internet to disseminate opinions, petitions, and statements against the government.” The court also ordered the dissolution of ACPRA.

At the end of the court session, he was detained in al-Malaz prison in Riyadh but later moved to the criminal section in al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh, where he remains to date.

In August 2012, the UN Secretary-General raised Al Qahtani’s case in the annual report on reprisals, citing concerns “that the criminal charges against him are directly related to his work documenting cases of arbitrary detention in Saudi Arabia and constitute reprisals in response to his engagement with human rights mechanisms”. His case was raised again in the Secretary-General’s 2013 report.

In an Opinion adopted on September 4, 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) found the detention of Al Qahtani – along with that of several other human rights defenders, most of whom had ties to ACPRA – to be arbitrary. The WGAD called on the Saudi government to remedy the situation, stating that “the adequate remedy would be the immediate release of the detainees and the provision of the reparation for the harm caused by the grievances.” A year later, on November 17, 2016, the WGAD renewed its call for the human rights defenders to be released, highlighting that “their detention is in violation of international human rights standards.”

Al Qahtani was a recipient of the 2018 Right Livelihood Award along with two other Saudi human rights defenders – Abdullah al-Hamid and Waleed Abu al-Khair – “for their visionary and courageous efforts, guided by universal human rights principles, to reform the totalitarian political system in Saudi Arabia”.

On May 1, 2019, MENA Rights Group referred the case to the UN Secretary-General ahead of the preparation of the annual report on intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN in the field of human rights.

On September 19, 2019, the UN Secretary-General raised the case in the 2019 report on reprisals against individuals who cooperate with the UN in the field of human rights.

On May 1, 2020, MENA Rights Group referred the case to the UN Secretary-General ahead of the preparation of the annual report on intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN in the field of human rights.

On September 30, 2020, the UN Secretary-General raised the case in the 2020 report on reprisals against individuals who cooperate with the UN in the field of human rights.

Between December 19 and 30, 2020, Al Qahtani carried out another hunger strike in prison, in protest of being denied family contact, access to books and essential medication. He had ended his previous hunger strike after the authorities said they will meet his demands.

Between March 6 and 14, 2021, Al Qahtani and more than 30 other prisoners of conscience undertook another hunger strike in protest of the harassment they were facing in Al Ha’ir prison in Riyadh. This included being held in the same ward as psychiatric detainees, some of whom had been violent towards them, and being denied family contact and access to books and newspapers. They ended the hunger strike after the authorities said they will meet the prisoner’s demands.

In April 2021, Al Qahtani tested positive for COVID-19, as other cases were spreading in Al Ha’ir prison. He has been denied any contact with the outside world since April 7, 2021.

On April 15, 2021, MENA Rights Group referred the case to the UN Secretary-General ahead of the preparation of the annual report on intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN in the field of human rights.

On September 29, 2021, the UN Secretary-General raised the case in the 2021 report on reprisals against individuals who cooperate with the UN in the field of human rights.

On April 15, 2022, MENA Rights Group referred the case to the UN Secretary-General ahead of the preparation of the annual report on intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN in the field of human rights.

On September 29, 2022, the UN Secretary-General raised the case in the 2022 report on reprisals against individuals who cooperate with the UN in the field of human rights.

On November 3, 2022, MENA Rights Group requested the urgent intervention of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) after being informed that his relatives had not heard from him since October 23, 2022.

On November 30, 2022, four UN Special Procedures mandate holders, including the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, expressed their concern for the physical and mental health and the integrity of Al Qahtani. In particular, they have highlighted that his detention in a place where he is regularly exposed to physical attacks from his cellmates, amounts to ill-treatment. It was also highlighted that there is an “emerging trend to keep human rights defenders in prison after having completed their sentence by overturning their original sentence and ordering new trials without providing them with sufficient information or legal assistance, in violation of the ‘non bis in idem’ principle”.

On December 21, 2022, Saudi authorities responded to the WGEID that Al Qahtani “is being detained at the Riyadh Reformatory Prison which is under the Ministry of Interior serving a prison sentence pursuant to article 113 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. His sentence was extended pursuant to article 114 of the Code and that the case is still being investigated. The government refute the allegations that Mr. Al Qahtani was transferred to a prison run by the Presidency of State Security, that he was subjected to harassment or assaults by inmates or other persons and that he is being forcibly disappeared. The Government in its reply note that Mr. Al Qahtani receives the necessary medical care and has access to physicians and that he is being treated in a manner that preserves his dignity and guarantees all his rights.”

On January 30, 2023, the Saudi authorities responded to the previous UN communication, affirming that: “[w]ith regard to the case of citizens Issa al-Nukhaifi and Mohammad al-Qahtani, they were charged with committing a number of criminal offences within the prison and with inciting others to commit criminal offences at the end of their sentences. The Public Prosecution Service investigated the offences with which they were charged and issued a warrant for their arrest and for periods of detention based on the Code of Criminal Procedure. The case is still being investigated and they are both detained in the Riyadh Correctional Facility.”

On May 15, 2023, the Geneva Bar Association sent a letter to the Saudi Presidency of State Security expressing their grave concerns over the fate of al-Qahtani, urging them to release him immediately, ensuring he receives a fair trial with access to his family and legal counsel, and to protect al-Qahtani and all human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia from reprisals.

On August 20, 2023, the case of Dr al-Qahtani was raised in the UN Secretary General's 2023 report on reprisals against individuals who cooperate with the UN in the field of human rights. 

Timeline

August 20, 2023: Mentioned in the UN Secretary General's 2023 report on reprisals.
May 15, 2023: the Geneva Bar Association sends a letter to the Presidency of State Security expressing their grave concerns over the fate of al-Qahtani and urging them to release him.
January 30, 2023: Saudi authorities respond to the UN WGEID saying that al-Qahtani's case is still being investigated.
December 21, 2022: Saudi authorities respond to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances that Al Qahtani’s prison sentence was extended.
November 30, 2022: four UN Special Procedures mandate holders including Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders issue a communication and express their concern for Al-Qahtani’s physical and mental health.
November 21, 2022: Al-Qahtani served his 10 year sentence and yet remains in detention.
November 3, 2022: MENA Rights Group requests the urgent intervention of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) after being informed that his relatives had not heard from him since October 23, 2022.
September 29, 2022: Mentioned in the UN Secretary-General’s 2022 report on reprisals.
April 15, 2022: MENA Rights Group refers case to the UN Secretary-General ahead of the preparation of the 2022 report on reprisals.
September 29, 2021: Mentioned in the UN Secretary-General’s 2021 report on reprisals.
April 15, 2021: MENA Rights Group refers case to the UN Secretary-General ahead of the preparation of the 2021 report on reprisals.
April 7, 2021: Al Qahtani is denied contact with the outside world.
April 2021: Al Qahtani tests positive for COVID-19.
March 6, 2021: Al Qahtani and more than 30 other prisoners of conscience undertake a third hunger strike in protest of the harassment they are facing in Al Ha’ir prison.
December 16, 2020: Al Qahtani carries out a second hunger strike in prison in protest of being denied family contact, access to books and essential medication.
September 30, 2020: Mentioned in the UN Secretary-General’s 2020 report on reprisals.
May 1, 2020: MENA Rights Group refers case to the UN Secretary-General ahead of the preparation of the 2020 report on reprisals.
October 9, 2019: Ahead of the 10-year anniversary of ACPRA’s founding, MENA Rights Group and ALQST submitted his case to the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
September 19, 2019: Mentioned in the UN Secretary-General’s 2019 report on reprisals.
May 1, 2019: MENA Rights Group refers case to the UN Secretary-General ahead of the preparation of the 2019 report on reprisals.
December 17, 2018: Al Qahtani begins hunger strike, for which he is subsequently punished with solitary confinement.
November 2018: Al Qahtani is among recipients of 2018 Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’.
November 17, 2016: UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention renews call for Saudi Arabia to release Al Qahtani and eight other human rights activists.
September 4, 2015: UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finds Al Qahtani’s detention to be arbitrary, calls for his release.
July 2013: UN Secretary-General follows up on case in annual report on reprisals.
March 9, 2013: Sentenced by the Criminal Court in Riyadh to 10 years of imprisonment and a 10-year travel ban and arrested.

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