On 5 April 2021, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh sentenced humanitarian worker and activist Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years in prison, to be followed by a travel ban of the same length, on charges relating to his peaceful online activism. The ruling is preliminary and can be appealed within 30 days.
Despite being informed by the authorities in February 2021 that he was not facing charges and would be released soon, al-Sadhan was brought to trial before the SCC on 3 March, facing charges relating to his peaceful social media activism, and which relied on “confessions” extracted through torture.
In a trial marred by gross violations of international fair trial guarantees, including several hearings being held in secret, al-Sadhan was tried under the Counter-Terrorism and Anti-Cybercrime Laws, which are both frequently used to stifle free speech in Saudi Arabia. He faced spurious charges that included “preparing, storing and sending material prejudicial to public order and religious values", based on peaceful tweets published on his Twitter accounts.
The SCC, like Saudi Arabia’s regular criminal courts, is well known for its disregard of legal safeguards and has shown itself to lack any independence, proceeding with unfair trials and invoking repressive legislation against activists and reformers in line with the authorities' attempts to stifle free speech.
On 12 March 2018, al-Sadhan was arrested by the Mabaheth security forces from his workplace, the headquarters of the Saudi Red Crescent in Riyadh, without being informed of the reasons for his arrest or shown an arrest warrant. He was subsequently taken to an unknown location. For nearly two years his family had no information about his whereabouts or well-being.
Following 23 months of enforced disappearance, with no news about his fate, on 12 February 2020 he was for the first time allowed to make a phone call to his family. During the call, al-Sadhan mentioned being held in al-Ha’ir Prison, but gave no details about his state of health or general situations. Following the phone call, al-Sadhan was denied any further contact with his family for over a year, until 22 February 2021.
ALQST has received information that during his detention al-Sadhan has been subjected to severe torture and sexual harassment including, but not limited to, electric shocks, beatings that caused broken bones, flogging, suspension in stress positions, death threats, insults, verbal humiliation and solitary confinement. Al-Sadhan’s health has deteriorated in detention, and he is now pre-diabetic, a condition he did not suffer from prior to his arrest.
ALQST’s Executive Director Alaa Al-Siddiq commented: “After more than three years of arbitrary detention and depriving him of his most basic rights, the authorities have inflicted yet further cruelty upon al-Sadhan with this unjust sentence. With less than 30 days to appeal the sentence, it is vital that the international community now increase the pressure for his immediate release.”
In recent weeks, several other prisoners of conscience have been handed lengthy prison sentences in Saudi Arabia, including woman human rights defender Israa al-Ghomgham. Human rights activist Mohamed al-Oteibi was recently handed an additional three years on top of his existing sentence, meaning that he now faces a total of 17 years in prison; and the Public Prosecution is calling for a 25-year prison sentence against human rights activist Mohammed al-Rabiah.
ALQST calls on the Saudi authorities to drop all charges against Abdulrahman al-Sadhan and release him immediately and unconditionally, as well as all those detained for the peaceful expression of their opinions or for acting to promote human rights.