Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia: Wave of arrests continue as authorities crack down on human rights defenders and freedom of expression


The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has markedly deteriorated and there has been a renewed crackdown against human rights defenders, since the accession of Mohammad bin Salman as Crown Prince in June 2017. The environment for human rights defenders has become increasingly dangerous and they face targeting by authorities on a daily basis. 

Writers, academics, on-line activists and clerics have been among those arrested recently.  In one week alone in September, more than 20 prominent human rights defenders were detained following a wave of house raids and arrests.

On 12 September 2017, academic and novelist Dr Mustafa Al-Hassan was arrested and held in solitary confinement in Al-Damman city without access to his family or lawyer.  On the same day, academic and activist Abdullah Al-Malki, known for his support for reforms and human rights was arrested from his home and his whereabouts remain unknown. Essam Al-Zamel, an entrepreneur known for his writing about the need for economic reform, was also arrested the same day. 

Issa Al-Hamid and Abdulaziz Al-Shubaili, both members of the Civil and Political Rights Association in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA), were also arrested in September to begin serving sentences of 11 and eight years respectively.

Al-Hamid, who was arrested on 16 September, is a founding member and former President of ACPRA and was charged with “participating in the establishment of an unlicensed organisation” (namely ACPRA) and “communicating with international organisations in order to harm the image of the state.” As a result of his human rights activities, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on appeal, after first being sentenced to nine years in prison on 24 April 2016 by the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh. The SCC also sentenced him to nine years of travel ban after he served his sentence. Following an appeal, an additional two years was added to his prison sentence, and he was fined 100,000 Saudi Riyals (USD$26,665).

Al-Shubaili is a principal member of ACPRA who participated in the legal defense of many of his fellow members of ACPRA. On 14 August 2017, Al-Shubaili received news that the Specialised Criminal Court of Appeal in Riyadh upheld the full preliminary sentence issued against him. To date, this court has ratified all the prison sentences issued against members of ACPRA. In a hearing held on10 January 2017, the SCC sentenced Al-Shubaili to eight years in prison, followed by another eight years’ ban on writing on social media, in addition to a travel ban of eight years to begin after the sentence has been served.

 Authorities have arrested and prosecuted nearly all activists associated with ACPRA, one of Saudi Arabia’s first civic organisations, which called for broad political reform in interpretations of Islamic law. A Saudi court formally dissolved and banned the group in March 2013.  Members of ACPRA already in prison on vague charges include Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamid, Dr. Abdulrahman Al-HamidSulaiman Al-Rashoodi, Dr. Abdulkareem Al-KhodrFawzan Al-HarbiSaleh Al-Ashwan, and Omar Al-Hamid.

In August 2017, human rights defenders Issa Al-Nukhaifi and Essam Koshak were brought to court over their human rights activities. Al-Nukhaifi is a community social activist who protested against the government’s policy of displacing families from the Saudi-Yemeni borders for security measures without adequate compensation. On 18 December 2016, the security forces in the Jizan region arrested Al-Nukhaifi and detained him at Mecca prison pending interrogation at the Investigation and Prosecution Authority in Jizan city.

Koshak was summoned on 8 January 2017 by the Criminal Investigation Department in Mecca. On arrival he was arrested and detained and ordered to appear before the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution in Mecca the next day. He was interrogated over postings made on Twitter, including his support for ending the guardianship system for women. He also supports the rule of law and human rights reforms in Saudi Arabia.

Women human rights defenders were also subjected to silencing after being summoned for interrogations where they were asked to sign pledges to refrain from engaging in advocacy online. On the day of announcement of the Royal Decree to repeal the ban on women driving, the Royal court phoned several prominent women’s rights defenders who advocated for women driving and warned them from commenting on the Royal decision or they would face legal measures. In addition, a prominent young woman activist in the campaign to end the male guardianship system was summoned for investigation and was interrogated over her tweets calling for gender equality. She was ordered to sign a pledge to refrain from her advocacy online, and she later deleted her accounts. It is unclear if other women were affected due to their advocacy, because women are often advised not to disclose their communication with the interrogators.

The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has always been dire. Since 2011 Saudi courts have convicted at least 25 prominent activists and dissidents. Well-known human rights defenders such as lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair, blogger Raif Badawi, photographer and activist Fadhil Al-Manasif, journalists Zuhair Al-Kutbi and Alaa Brinji, and writer Nadhir Al-Majed are serving long sentence for their human rights activities. There are many more activists detained, or facing detention, and many of those in prison have experienced unfair trials and ill-treatment and inhumane living conditions.

However, the crackdown seen in recent months is clear evidence of a worsening environment and the situation is now critical.

It is feared that the country’s new counterterrorism agency, the Presidency of State Security, will be used to further silence activists, particularly given its recent statement following a wave of arrests, that it had worked “to monitor the intelligence activities of a group of people for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the kingdom and its interests, methodology, capabilities, and social peace in order to stir up sedition and prejudice national unity.”

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) believes that this recent crackdown against human rights defenders and the right to freedom of expression is a clear attempt by the new leadership to quash the promotion and protection of human rights and silence those working to uphold them.

GCHR views this recent crackdown on human rights activists as a flagrant breach of international human rights law and a worrying message from the new leadership that human rights and freedom of expression have no place in Saudi Arabia.

GCHR calls on all governments to use any opportunity and influence they have to push the authorities in Saudi Arabia to release human rights defenders and put an immediate end to their systematic targeting.

GCHR urges the authorities in Saudi Arabia to:

  1. Immediately and unconditionally release all the above-mentioned human rights defenders and all prisoners of conscience detained as a result of their legitimate and peaceful human rights activities;
  2. Immediately desist from targeting human rights defenders, including on-line activists who peacefully promote human rights and exercise their right to freedom of expression; and
  3. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions. 

We respectfully remind you that the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998, recognises the legitimacy of the activities of human rights defenders, their right to freedom of association and to carry out their activities without fear of reprisals. We would particularly draw your attention to Article 5 (b) : For the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels; (b)To form, join and participate in non-governmental organizations, associations or groups;”;  and to Article 6 (c): “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others: (c) To study, discuss, form and hold opinions on the observance, both in law and in practice, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and, through these and other appropriate means, to draw public attention to those matters“, and to Article 12 (2): “The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present declaration.”