Saudi Arabia: Detained human rights defenders subjected to numerous abuses, including being held past end of sentences


Saudi authorities continue their systematic targeting of detained human rights defenders and other activists, several of whom have been forcibly disappeared for months. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) condemns the practice of keeping imprisoned human rights defenders who have completed their sentences in prison in order to prevent them from carrying out their peaceful and legitimate human rights work.  

Human rights defender Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani forcibly disappeared 

GCHR once again declares its extreme concern about the safety and well-being of prominent human rights defender Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani (pictured above left), who has been forcibly disappeared by Saudi authorities for more than four months. We call for a strong international response against the authorities' refusal to disclose any reliable information confirming the whereabouts of Dr. Al-Qahtani. Please take action to #FreeAlQahtani!

On 24 February 2023, Dr. Al-Qahtani’s wife, human rights defender Maha Al-Qahtani, tweeted: "My husband is still under enforced disappearance for more than four months, and this violation began a month before the end of his unfair sentence. Why does the person responsible for this intentionally violate and ignore the laws!? Why is he not held accountable!? Who is behind that!? Where is my husband?"

The last time his family heard from him was on 24 October 2022, when he called from Al-Ha’ir Reformatory Prison in Riyadh. He was due for release on 22 November 2022 after serving a 10-year prison sentence. His disappearance comes after his wife filed a complaint on 10 October 2022 with the prison director about her husband being repeatedly assaulted by inmates suffering from mental illnesses who are in the same ward (8a).

Repeated appeals by GCHR and partners have previously called for the release of Dr. Al-Qahtani, who won the Right Livelihood Award in 2018 for his commitment to promoting human rights and advancing democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia.

Last week, 09 March 2023 marked the 10th anniversary of his arrest due to his peaceful and ligitimate human rights activities.

Human rights defender Issa Al-Nukhaifi forcibly disappeared  

Repeated local reports received by GCHR confirmed that human rights defender Issa Al-Nukhaifi (pictured above right) was transferred on 24 October 2022 from Al-Ha’ir Reformatory Prison in Riyadh to an unknown destination, and there is no information about his current whereabouts. It was hoped that he would be released after he completed his sentence on 18 December 2022.

Thus, it can be said that Al-Nukhaifi is now subjected to enforced disappearance by the Saudi authorities, putting him in the same situation as prominent human rights defender Dr. Al-Qahtani. They spent their sentences in wing (8A) of the same prison, and together they went on several hunger strikes to demand their rights and to protest against the ill-treatment to which they were subjected.

On 28 February 2018, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced Al-Nukhaifi to six years in prison, to be followed by another six years of travel ban after his release, in addition to preventing him from writing or using social media. The SCC is the terrorism court which was established in 2008 ostensibly to try members of terrorist organisations, but is often used to imprison human rights defenders.

Al-Nukhaifi was charged with “insulting” the authorities and inciting public opinion against the rulers, as well as being in contact with suspected opposition figures. He was also accused of demanding the release of members of banned NGOs – namely the Association for Civil and Political Rights in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA). He was charged under the Anti-Cyber Crimes Law in connection with his online activities on social media networks which include his rejection of the war in Yemen, and his support for the hashtag of the Popular Parliament.

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 after he tweeted on 06 December 2016: “I did not steal trillions, I did not buy a yacht and I did not buy a plane. I do not have a home for my children. I do not have a job after you took my job away and even my payment is late for the rented home so why the summons.”

He was previously released on 06 April 2016 after spending three years and eight months in prison. He was allegedly tortured and placed in solitary confinement after he began a hunger strike to demand justice. He was convicted on charges of defaming the judicial authority, accusing state institutions of failing to perform their duties, participating in sedition by inciting and organising demonstrations, and storing and sending material that would prejudice public order.

Some local reports confirmed that both Dr. Al-Qahtani and Al-Nukhaifi are still alive but kept in prison due to the fears of authorites that if they were to be released then they will start again their human rights activities.

Sentence increased of doctor and Internet activist Ziad Al-Sufyani

Reliable report confirmed that the initial sentence of eight years’ imprisonment against doctor and Internet activist Ziad Al-Sufyani has been increased to 14 years at the appeal stage.

Al-Sufyani and his colleague Osama Khalid are two young doctors known for their contribution to Wikipedia posts in Arabic, who have been sentenced to prison in Saudi Arabia. Both have contributed to the online encyclopedia, which is maintained and managed by volunteers, over the last decade, and had edited articles about woman human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul.

They were arrested in the summer of 2020 while Saudi Arabia was under Covid-19 lockdown and initially sentenced to five and eight years of imprisonment respectively, before Khalid's sentence was increased to 32 years upon his appeal. Few details are known about either case.

Sentence of woman human rights defender Salma Al-Shehab reduced

Reliable sources confirmed that in January 2023, the Supreme Court returned the case of academic and woman human rights defender Salma Al-Shehab to the SCC, which decided in February 2023 to reduce the sentence from 34 to 27 years’ imprisonment in addition to banning her from traveling for a similar period after completing her sentence.

Once again, GCHR condemns the inhuman and unfair sentence of 27 years in prison against Al-Shehab for her online peaceful activities, noting that it was previously the heaviest sentence of its kind that any peaceful activist has ever received.

Her Twitter account, which she used in particular to demonstrate her belief in the justice of the Palestinian cause and to defend prisoners of conscience, has the following phrase and hashtags in its header: Life is belief and struggle. #Quds_is_ Arabic #Stop_Killing_Women #Freedom_for_prisoners_of_opinion

The pinned tweet, which she published on 30 August 2019, said, "I reject injustice, and support the oppressed.... Freedom for prisoners of conscience and for all the oppressed in the world."

On 20 December 2020, she tweeted, "Freedom for the inmates of patriarchy, shame on the jailer!"

Al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two children, is a specialist in oral and human health. She was studying for a PhD at the University of Leeds in Britain in her field of specialisation, and she previously obtained a master's degree from King Saud University in Riyadh.

On 09 August 2022, the Specialised Criminal Court of Appeal sentenced her to 34 years in prison, in addition to banning her from traveling for a similar period after completing her sentence. This unjust sentence relates only to her peaceful and civilised activities on Twitter.  

Among several charges, the Public Prosecution charged her with "destabilising the security of society and the stability of the state", "spreading sedition", "providing aid to those who seek to disrupt public order" and "spreading false and malicious rumours on Twitter".

The Law of Combating Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing of 2017, and the Anti-Cyber Crime Law of 2007 were used in the recent harsh verdict against her.

On 15 January 2021, Al-Shehab was arrested after going to Saudi Arabia to spend the holiday with her family. She was subjected to ill-treatment during her arrest and for long hours of daily investigation over a period of nine and a half months. After that, her trial began before the SCC.  She was initially sentenced to six years in prison in 2021.

It is worth noting that she was not allowed to hire a lawyer throughout the strenuous investigation stage, in flagrant violation of Article 4 of the Saudi Law of Criminal Procedure.

Aid worker Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan remains incommunicado       

On 12 March 2023, woman human rights defender Areej Al-Sadhan, the sister of Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, an aid worker who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for having an anonymous satirical twitter account, tweeted the following, "Today is 5 YEARS since my brother AbdulrahmanAl-Sadhan was arbitrary detained in SaudiArabia by Saudi gov. He was held without charge for 3 years & brutally tortured before they sentenced him to 20 years in a sham court for tweeting. We’re still denied any contact. #WhereIsSadhan"

Al-Sadhan was sentenced to 20 years in prison during a hearing held on 05 April 2021 by the SCC in Riyadh. On 12 March 2018, Al-Sadhan was arrested at the offices of the Saudi Red Crescent Society in Riyadh, where he works as an aid worker.

GCHR is concerned about the various methods that the Saudi authorities use to arrest and harass online activists or silence online discussion, including the use of electronic flies, in addition to surveillance. The General Directorate of Investigation (Al-Mabahith), under direct orders from Mohammed bin Salman, established electronic intelligence groups composed of large numbers of electronic flies using Twitter accounts to incite attacks on independent voices calling for reform and to call for the arrest of popular Twitter users who were being monitored.

On 09 August 2022, Ahmad Abouammo, a dual US-Lebanese citizen who was a manager at Twitter, was convicted on six out of 11 charges, including "acting as an agent for Saudi Arabia" and "trying to disguise a payment from an official" linked to the Saudi royal family. On 15 December 2022, he was sentenced to 42 months in prison for his role in accessing, monitoring and conveying confidential and sensitive information that could be used to identify and locate Twitter users of interest to the Saudi Royal Family.


GCHR calls on the authorities in Saudi Arabia to: 

  1. Immediately and unconditionally release Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, Issa Al-Nukhaifi, Ziad Al-Sufyani, Osama Khalid, Salma Al-Shehab, Abdulrahman Al-Shadhan, amd all other prisoners of conscience;
  2. While they are in custody, abide by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules), and provide proper care to maintain their health, and allow them full access to their families;
  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.