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Renewed crackdown on Saudi human rights defenders and critics

April 16, 2021

In an attempt to modernise the kingdom and diversify its economy, Saudi Arabia has announced a set of reforms in recent years. However, in early 2021, the authorities continued to severely repress any independent civil society movements and to target those who have campaigned for the introduction of these reforms. ALQST for Human Rights and MENA Rights Group condemn the renewed crackdown on human rights defenders and peaceful critics who have been brought to trial, sentenced to lengthy prison terms or had their convictions upheld or increased on appeal.

Discrepancy between proposed reform plans and ongoing repression

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently announced plans to approve a series of social, economic and legal reforms aimed at modernising the conservative kingdom. However, worrisome developments during the first quarter of 2021 have made it clear that there is a significant discrepancy between the reform efforts Saudi Arabia is advertising to the international community and its treatment of civil reform movements internally, on which it continues to harshly crack down:

While in 2019, Saudi Arabia has introduced women’s rights reforms, such as allowing Saudi women to travel without restrictions or to drive and to register their children’s birth, the women activists who had championed these reforms and who were arrested in 2018 largely remained on trial or in detention. Some of the women’s rights defenders have meanwhile been released pending trial or conditionally released after being convicted. Although Nouf Abdelaziz and Loujain Al Hathloul’s conditional release in the beginning of 2021 may bring some hope that other prominent women’s rights defenders might also soon be set free, they could be re-arrested at any moment if they resume their activism. In addition, they still face lengthy travel bans and other restrictive conditions, which other prominent women’s rights activists who remain in detention are likely to face as well upon their release.

A number of other human rights defenders and peaceful critics have been sentenced in the beginning of 2021 to lengthy prison terms on charges that stemmed directly from the exercise of their fundamental rights and freedoms, following trials that did not meet due process guarantees. Other human rights activists currently face the high risk of being handed down such heavy prison sentences in relation to their peaceful activities. In other cases, human rights activists saw their prison sentences upheld or even significantly increased after having challenged their conviction on appeal.

Peaceful dissidents facing reprisals in 2021

On April 14, 2021, ALQST for Human Rights and MENA Rights Group raised several cases of human rights defenders whose fundamental human rights have been breached in the beginning of 2021 in a communication addressed to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders:

Abdulrahman Al Sadhan: 20 years imprisonment for running satirical twitter accounts

Abdulrahman Al Sadhan is an employee of the Saudi Red Crescent. He was arrested in March 2018 and forcibly disappeared for almost three years. During this time, he was only permitted two brief phone calls with his family. On April 5, 2021, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, followed by a 20-year travel ban, for running two satirical Twitter accounts. He was given 30 days to appeal.

Six activists, including Israa Al Ghomgham, sentenced to lengthy prison terms

In February 2021, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced six activists, including Israa Al Ghomgham, to lengthy prison terms on charges related to peaceful protest or social media activity. Israa Al Ghomgham and her husband Mousa Al Hashim are from the Eastern Province where most of the country's Shi’a population lives. They were arrested after participating in and filming protests calling for an end of discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority. Her initial sentencing to death was replaced with eight years’ imprisonment. Her appeal is pending.

Mohammed Al Rabiah at risk of lengthy prison term

Mohammed Al Rabiah is a human rights defender who was arrested in 2018 in the context of Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on women’s rights defenders and campaigners against the male guardianship system. On March 21, 2021, his case was transferred to the SCC. He is currently at risk of a lengthy prison term, with the Public Prosecution calling for a 25-year prison sentence, followed by a travel ban.

Sentence against women’s rights defender Nassima Al Sadah upheld

Nassima Al Sadah is an activist for women’s rights and the rights of the Shi’a minority, who campaigned for an end to the driving ban on women. In 2018, a month after the ban was lifted, she was arrested along with other activists who had advocated for an end to discrimination against women. On March 22, 2021, her sentence of five years in prison, followed by a five-year travel ban, handed down in November 2020 in relation to her peaceful activism, was upheld on appeal.

Sentence against Mohammed Al Otaibi increased

Human rights activist Mohammed Al Otaibi co-founded the Union for Human Rights. In 2017, when trying to flee to Norway to avoid reprisals for his human rights work, he was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia from Qatar. In 2018, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. In 2020, an additional one-year prison sentence was handed down on Al Otaibi, which was increased to a three-year sentence on appeal in early 2021, resulting in a 17-year prison term in total.

Our demands

ALQST for Human Rights and MENA Rights Group strongly condemn Saudi Arabia’s ongoing repression of human rights defenders and peaceful critics and call for genuine reform efforts that include the respect for the most basic rights and liberties of Saudi citizens. We call on the Saudi authorities to:

- immediately release all prisoners of conscience currently detained;

- drop all charges against them and;

- lift the restrictive conditions and travel bans placed on those conditionally released.

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