The prominent Saudi human rights activist Fahad al-Fahad has served two years in prison since his April 2016 arrest and subsequent conviction on charges tied solely to his peaceful social media activity, Human Rights Watch said. He is one of more than 20 prominent Saudi activists serving long prison terms on charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “inciting hostility against the state” that do not constitute recognizable crimes.
When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was asked in February 2018 by The Washington Post whether he would consider releasing imprisoned activists prior to his trip to the United States in late March, he replied, “If it works, don’t fix it,” but he later said that he would consider “reforms” in this area, The Washington Post reported. The Atlantic reported on April 2 that he told Jeffery Goldberg, “there is a different standard of freedom of speech” in Saudi Arabia, indicating that speech is limited around topics of Islam and national security and when criticizing people by name.
“As Mohammad bin Salman parades himself across the world spending millions to bill himself as a reformist, many Saudis are thrown in jail and forgotten for the ‘crime’ of calling for badly needed reforms,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If the Saudi Crown Prince wants to do something that would warrant the reformist label, a good start would be the immediate release of imprisoned activists and dissidents who never should have been arrested in the first place.”
Authorities arrested al-Fahad, a former labor ministry consultant, on April 6, 2016. The Specialized Criminal Court, a terrorism court that has handled most cases of peaceful dissidents since 2014, sentenced him in June 2017 to five years in prison, including time served, a 10-year travel ban, and a ban on writing and media work. The judgment does not indicate the length of the ban on writing, but a Saudi activist with direct knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that the Saudi judge said in the courtroom that the ban was for life. Al-Fahad is in al-Dhahban prison north of Jeddah.
Al-Fahad’s charges included violating the Saudi cybercrime law via tweets criticizing the Saudi criminal justice system and government corruption and “inciting hostility against the state, its structure, and its justice systems.” He was also accused of assisting the now-banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association and “sympathizing with its members” by publishing its statements and attending meetings.
Several other activists have been sentenced to prison since the beginning of 2018.
On January 25, the court sentenced Mohammad al-Oteibi and Abdullah al-Attawi to 14 and 17 years respectively on charges of “forming an unlicensed organization” and other vague charges relating to a short-lived human rights organization they set up in 2013. None of the alleged “crimes” listed in the charge sheet resemble recognizable criminal behavior, and none took place after October 2013.
The court sentenced Essam Koshak, to four years in prison and a four-year travel ban on February 27 for tweets in which he called for an end to discrimination against women and criticized Saudi Arabia’s treatment of jailed rights advocates. And on February 28, the court sentenced the prominent activist Issa al-Nukheifi to six years in prison for critical tweets. Both are in Riyadh’s al-Malaz prison.
The authorities have prosecuted nearly all activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, one of Saudi Arabia’s first civic organizations, which called for broad political reform in interpretations of Islamic law. A Saudi court formally dissolved and banned the group in March 2013. The members faced similar vague charges, including disparaging and insulting judicial authorities, inciting public opinion, insulting religious leaders, participating in setting up an unlicensed organization, and violating the cybercrime law.
Other Saudi activists and dissidents serving long prison terms based solely on their peaceful activism include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Raif Badawi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, Alaa Brinji, and Nadhir al-Majed.
“Outlandish sentences against peaceful activists and dissidents demonstrate Saudi authorities’ complete intolerance toward citizens who speak out for human rights and reform,” Whitson said.