Saudi Arabia: Arbitrary arrest and sentencing of human rights defenders on national security offences

(Joint Communication sent to the Government of Saudi Arabia)

The responses of the Government of Saudi Arabia will become available on the communications database:

On 16 February 2021, I wrote an allegation letter along with six other UN experts to the Government of Saudi Arabia concerning the arbitrary arrest, detention and sentencing of human rights defenders and others on national security and terrorism related charges.

Defender of freedom from arbitrary detention, Mohammad Abdullah al-Otaibi, was originally arrested on 28 May 2017 as he attempted to travel to Norway to seek refugee status. From the time of his arrest until the date of his first trial, 12 June 2017, he was allegedly held in solitary confinement and denied access to his lawyer.

On 25 January 2018, Mr. al-Otaibi was sentenced to 14 years in prison along with defender of freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly, Mr. Abdulla Madhi al-Attawi, who was sentenced to seven years. They were convicted in relation to their establishment of non-governmental organisation the Union for Human Rights. Mr. al-Otaibi was also convicted of additional charges relating to his social media activity.

On 1 December 2020, Mr. al-Otaibi’s sentence was increased to 15 years after he was convicted on two further charges relating to his social media activity and for having travelled to Qatar in 2017. Mr. al-Otaibi, who suffers from high-blood pressure, began a hunger strike on 11 January 2021 against the alleged refusal of prison authorities to provide him access to appropriate medication to manage his condition and to transfer him to a prison closer to his family.

Human rights defender, writer and co-founder of the Association for Civil and Political Rights in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA), Mr. Mohammed al-Qahtani, has been serving a ten year sentence since March 2013 in reprisal for cooperating with UN human rights mechanisms, among other convictions. From 18 to 30 December 2020 Mr. Al Qahtani went on hunger strike against the restrictions placed on calls to his family and for the withholding of books which had been sent to him in prison. He was permitted to contact his family again on 30 December 2020.

Writer and son of woman human rights defender Aziza al-Yousef, Mr. Salah al-Haidar was arrested and detained in April 2019. He was held incommunicado for one month and the charges against him were not made available to his family until Autumn 2020. Mr. al-Haidar, who is now allowed to speak with his lawyer over the phone, had his first hearings on 31 September and 21 December 2020 at the Specialised Criminal Court of Saudi Arabia (SCC).

On 28 December 2020 Ms. Loujain al-Hathloul and Ms. Mayaa al-Zahrani were sentenced to five years and eight months in prison by the SCC, with two year and ten months of their sentence suspended and the ruling accompanied by a three-year probation period and five-year travel ban.

Both women human rights defenders, who were originally arrested in 2018, were convicted on multiple charges related to their human rights work. On 10 February 2021, Ms. al-Hathloul was released from prison. Due to the suspended sentence and travel ban against her, she may be returned to prison if she is perceived to have engaged in any criminal activity.

In the letter the experts and I expressed concern over the harsh sentencing of the individuals mentioned, particularly in light of a noticeable trend in the use of national security and counter-terrorism legislation to punish individuals for exercising and defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have ruled some of those mentioned in the letter to have been detained arbitrarily.

Read the letter in full –


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