General: Open letter to President Obama to help free jailed human rights defenders in the Gulf on the eve of Camp David summit


Dear President Obama,

On the eve of your summit meeting with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on 13 and 14 May, we urge you to press for the release of all detained human rights defenders across the Gulf region who are imprisoned solely due to their peaceful and legitimate human rights work. In order for there to be stability in the Gulf region, we firmly believe that human rights defenders play an essential role in helping to end violence and ensuring respect for human rights. Instead, these peaceful advocates have been jailed, many for life, simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly. Freeing them will be seen as a sign that there is political will by Gulf governments to start a dialogue when the region is beset by war and turmoil.

For example, in Bahrain, the country which currently holds the position of Secretary-General of the GCC, the monarchy has ruthlessly cracked down on all well-known human rights defenders, who are either in prison, facing prison or in exile. They include Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and Co-Founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), who faces up to ten years in prison in numerous charges over tweets about human rights issues. On 14 May, the day you meet at Camp David, Rajab is due to receive a verdict in a case of allegedly "insulting public institutions and the army" via Twitter in 2014, when he highlighted the roots of extremism in Bahrain. He is facing other charges for condemning the bombing of civilians in Yemen, and for reporting on torture of prisoners in Jaw prison.

Jailed human rights defenders have resorted to hunger strikes to protest the inhumane conditions in Jaw prison, including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Co-Founder of GCHR and BCHR, and blogger Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, who were both sentenced to life in prison for their roles in democracy protests in 2011. The two men, who were falsely accused of allegedly belonging to a group calling for the overthrow of the government, have been tortured and mistreated in prison and their health is at risk while they are on hunger strike. You called for their release in 2011, but they remain imprisoned on freedom of expression charges.

Prisoners of conscious rioted in Jaw Prison on 10 March after female relatives were attacked by guards during a family visit, leading to a violent crackdown. Prisoners reported to have been badly tortured including human rights defender Naji Fateel of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, who was jailed in 2013 for 15 years for his peaceful human rights activities, including presentations at the United Nations. The situation in Jaw prison has been described as inhumane as torture and violations continue.

Saudi Arabia, which does not tolerate any kind of dissent, has sentenced critics to death or flogging. Last year, Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes in connection with the creation of a critical website, Liberal Network in Saudi Arabia, and his calls for reforms in the Kingdom. He suffered badly after the first 50 lashes in January this year.

Human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair, Founder and Director of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA), was sentenced last year to 15 years in jail for allegedly “antagonising international organisations against the kingdom,” and “incitement of public opinion against authorities,” among other charges.

In March 2015, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, a founding member of the Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACRPA), was sentenced to ten years in prison (five years suspended) in Saudi Arabia for reporting on the alleged torture and death in detention of a Yemeni prisoner. Al-Bajadi was accused of allegedly defaming the country's reputation, questioning the independence of the judicial system, and communicating with foreign organisations, among other charges.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), dozens of government critics and reform activists were jailed for up to 15 years in 2013, including prominent human rights defenders, judges, academics, and student leaders. Among those charged with allegedly trying “to overthrow the government” during the mass “UAE 94” trial was human rights lawyer and law professor Dr Mohammed Al-Roken, who denies allegations against him. Since the trial, many relatives and supporters of the UAE 94 have been detained or imprisoned for publicising concerns about the trial and the reports of alleged torture and abuse in prison.

In Qatar, human rights defenders and critics have been in and out of prison. In one of the harshest cases, on 29 November 2011, poet Mohamed Rashid Al-Ajami was handed down a life sentence (reduced to 15 years in prison) for insulting the Emir of Qatar and “inciting to overthrow the ruling regime.” He was arrested after the publication of his "Jasmine poem," which criticised governments across the Gulf region in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.

In Oman and Kuwait as well, human rights defenders and online activists have been repeatedly arrested and jailed for advocating reform, and in violation of their right to free expression.

A popular theme across the GCC is the authorities’ intolerance of dissent, no matter whether it’s peaceful, and human rights defenders are harshly penalised for speaking out at home or international venues such as the UN. For the sake of stability and peace in the region, which is in the best interests of the GCC and the United States, we urge you to draw attention to the lack of space for civil society to operate freely, which is an impediment to ending conflict. Human rights defenders are treated worse than criminals, than even those who promote violence or join the very same violent groups that coalition forces are fighting.

The GCHR expresses its concern about the ongoing jailing of human rights defenders in the GCC countries and asks you, Mr. President, to call on the authorities to:

  • Release all human rights defenders jailed in violation of their right to free expression in Bahrain, including Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace and Naji Fateel, and ensure their protection from any harassment, torture, and persecution in relation to their peaceful human rights activities;
  • Release all human rights defenders jailed in violation of their right to free expression in Saudi Arabia, including Raif Badawi, Walid Abu Al-Khair and Mohammed Al-Bajadi, and seek an end to the practise of flogging;
  • Release all those peaceful human rights defenders wrongfully jailed in the UAE94 case, including human rights lawyer Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken;
  • Release the poet Mohamed Rashid Al-Ajami, jailed in Qatar in violation of his right to free expression;
  • Allow NGOs to function freely and play a role in civil society in all Gulf countries; and
  • End the practise of jailing human rights defenders and all those who peacefully advocate for reform and human rights in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Yours sincerely, 

Khalid Ibrahim and Maryam Al-Khawaja

Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)