Saudi Arabia: Journalists and rights defenders restricted from speaking or travelling following release from prison


The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) condemns the practise in Saudi Arabia of banning human rights defenders and journalists from expressing their opinions publicly or travelling for years following their release from prison, in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of movement. Women’s rights defenders and a journalist released in the past month are under travel bans which are equal to the length of their sentences. Meanwhile, the Saudi crown prince has not been held responsible for murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, despite reports by the United Nations and the United States indicating his involvement. Some of those involved in the murder received sentences equal to or shorter than those of human rights defenders, while others remain free with impunity.

Human rights defenders and journalists, among all citizens, are subjected to surveillance online, leading to their arrests in some cases, as documented by GCHR and other NGOs. Following their release from prison, they are not able to express themselves freely online, and are banned from travel so that they cannot tell their stories to the international community. The movements of former prisoners are monitored closely by the State Security Presidency, a security body created in 2017 by combining the counter-terrorism and domestic intelligence services under one roof. It is overseen by the king himself, and has been used to persecute human rights defenders and journalists rather than focusing on actual terrorist threats.

“What these human rights defenders suffer is a tragedy in every sense of the word,” says GCHR Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim. “Since they were targeted, they were considered enemies by the authorities and this continued even after their release. They are forbidden from expressing their opinion on or off the Internet and they have great difficulty in finding work. On top of that they are banned from traveling abroad to find another life.”

Two women human rights defenders, Loujain Al-Hathloul and Nouf Abdulaziz, were released from prison in Saudi Arabia on 10 February 2021. Al-Hathloul was released after 1001 days in prison since her arrest on 15 May 2018. She was sentenced in December 2020 to five years and eight months for her human rights activities, but freed upon completion of two thirds of her sentence. She has been placed on three years of probation, during which time she could be arrested for any perceived illegal activity, and was banned from travel for five years.

On 02 March 2021, Al-Hathloul appeared before the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) appeals division. The Public Prosecutor demanded that the suspended part of her sentence be cancelled, and the sentence be increased. The next hearing is on 10 March.

In February 2020, a court refused to investigate Al-Hathloul’s claims of torture in detention, continuing a pattern of impunity.

Abdulaziz, a journalist, blogger and activist, was arrested on 06 June 2018 after expressing solidarity with several women’s rights defenders who were arrested the month before, including Al-Hathloul. She was freed on 10 February 2021, but details about her release and charges have not been made public. She is under a travel ban.

Human rights defender Essam Koshak was freed on 21 January 2021 after completing a four-year sentence. On 27 February 2018, Koshak was sentenced by the SCC to four years in prison followed by another four years of travel ban upon his release. He was accused of inciting public opinion, and of supporting the hashtag to end the guardian system for women (#IAmMyOwnGuardian). He was arrested on 08 January 2017 in Mecca.

On 25 February 2021, journalist Alaa Brinji was released from prison after completing a sentence of seven years for Twitter posts in which he supported the right of women in Saudi Arabia to drive, and supported human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience. He is under an arbitrary travel ban for eight years. Brinji, who wrote for Al-Bilad, Al-Sharq and Okaz newspapers, is one of Saudi Arabia’s most well-known journalists. Brinji was brought before the SCC, which sentenced him to five years in prison in March 2016. In June 2016, a judge increased his sentence to seven years.

While others have been freed, woman human rights defender Nassima Al-Sadah remains in prison in Saudi Arabia waiting for a court to hear her appeal against her conviction. On 25 November 2020, the Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced Al-Sadah to five years in prison, with the suspension of the last two, and a five-year travel ban after the end of her sentence.

Meanwhile, in February 2021, the United States finally released reports concluding that the Saudi crown prince approved journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on 02 October 2018, but the US did not sanction him directly.

In response, GCHR joined over 40 organisations in a joint letter published on 02 March 2020, which states: “President Biden should use his power to impose the full range of sanctions available under the Global Magnitsky Act – including asset freezes and visa bans – on MBS as well as any other Saudi national implicated in the murder.”

On 07 September 2020, the Criminal Court in Riyadh issued its final verdicts in the Khashoggi murder, and sentenced eight unknown men to prison for periods ranging from seven to 20 years.

GCHR welcomed the report released on 19 June 2019 by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings, Agnès Callamard, which found the Saudi government responsible for the “premeditated execution” of Khashoggi, and called for the UN Secretary General to demand full accountability. GCHR echoes the Special Rapporteur’s calls for the crown prince and other high-level authorities involved in the murder to be held accountable in Saudi Arabia and internationally, including by the US and the UN.

GCHR calls on the authorities in Saudi Arabia to:

  1. Immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders, writers, journalists and prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia whose detention is a result of their peaceful and legitimate work in the promotion and protection of human rights including women’s rights;
  2. Overturn the sentences against human rights defenders Loujain Al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdulaziz, Nassima Al-Sadah, Essam Koshak, Alaa Brinjii, and all others sentenced for defending women’s rights and in violation of their right to freedom of expression;
  3. Lift the travel bans imposed on those released from prison and restrictions on their freedom of expression;
  4. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities and advocate for women’s rights without fear of reprisal; and
  5. Hold all those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s death accountable, including at the highest level.