Publication date: 06/05/2021

Several rights activists and peaceful critics of the Saudi authorities have been handed prison sentences in recent weeks, as part of a renewed crackdown on peaceful activism and the exercise of fundamental rights.

On 25 April 2021, human rights activist Khaled al-Omair was sentenced by the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) to seven years in prison and a travel ban of the same length on charges that included launching a hashtag on Twitter that read “the people want a new constitution” and leading a campaign to incite the people against the country’s leaders. The ruling is preliminary and can be appealed within 30 days.

Al-Omair was arrested at the end of June 2018 after filing a complaint with the Royal Court against an officer who tortured him during a previous eight-year prison term for his human rights activism. He was held for months without charge, which he protested against by carrying out a hunger strike before eventually being brought before the SCC on 8 September 2020.

In late April 2021, blogger Abdulaziz al-Odah was sentenced to five years in prison, half of it suspended, on charges relating to the peaceful expression of his opinions. Al-Odah was arrested in September 2019 after publishing comments on his Twitter account. The ruling is preliminary and can be appealed within 30 days.

And on 20 April, the SCC sentenced human rights activist Mohammed al-Rabiah to six years in prison and a travel ban of the same length on charges relating to his peaceful activism and defence of women’s rights. They included “seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion”, “instigating strife”, “carrying out foreign agendas that disrupt the kingdom’s security and stability”, and “authorising and publishing a book containing suspicious trends”. The ruling is preliminary and can be appealed within 30 days.

Al-Rabiah was arrested in 2018 as part of a crackdown on women’s rights defenders and campaigners against Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. Following his arrest he was subjected for months to brutal torture in detention. Al-Rabiah, who suffers from a herniated disc, was tortured by means of electric shocks and waterboarding; held in a small wardrobe for several days, unable to sit or sleep; hung upside down by his feet; and beaten until unconscious. 

A number of other human rights activists and peaceful critics of the authorities have been sentenced since the beginning of the year to lengthy prison terms, on charges stemming directly from the exercise of their fundamental rights and freedoms, following trials that did not meet due process guarantees. 

On 5 April 2021, the SCC 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. He has just days left to appeal the ruling by 5 May. In March, human rights activist Mohamed al-Oteibi, who had already been sentenced in 2018 to 14 years imprisonment for “forming an unlicensed [human rights] organisation”, received an additional three-year sentence on appeal on charges of “fleeing justice”, “going to Qatar”, “communicating with foreign entities” and “interfering in public affairs”, resulting in a 17-year prison term in total. On 22 March, the sentence of five years in prison, followed by a five-year travel ban, handed down in November 2020 against women’s rights defender Nassima al-Sadah in relation to her peaceful activism, was upheld on appeal. And on 10 February, the SCC sentenced six activists, including Israa al-Ghomgham, for whom the Public Prosecutor originally demanded the death penalty, to lengthy prison terms on charges relating to their peaceful civil activities. 

ALQST calls on the Saudi authorities to drop all charges against these activists and peaceful critics, and to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for the peaceful expression of their opinions or for acting to promote human rights. 

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