Saudi Arabia: arbitrary detentions and raids on homes of Human Rights Defenders (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Saudi Arabia on 30 November 2021. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public. The Government has responded to the letter, and at the time of publication is undergoing translation. All communications and replies can be found on the UN Special Procedures Database.

Read the original communication Read the Govenment's response


Topic: alleged arbitrary detention and raid of the homes of women human rights defenders Ms. Asmaa Al-Subaie and Ms. Maha Al-Rafidi, and the alleged arbitrary detention of human rights defenders Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, Mr. Fowzan Mohsen Awad Al-Harbi, Mr. Issa Al-Nukhaifi and Mr. Khaled Al-Omair.

Ms. Asmaa Al-Subaie is a woman human rights defender and university student, who uses her social media networks to express her views defending women’s rights and supported women subjected to domestic violence, as well as defending detainees.

Ms. Maha Al-Rafidi is a woman human rights defender and was a journalist for Al-Watan newspaper. She uses her social media networks to advocate for the defense of prisoners of conscience, and to express her rejection of normalisation of relations with Israel and her support for the Palestinian cause.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani is a human rights defender and a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), a leading human rights organisation in Saudi Arabia. The case of Mr. Al-Qahtani was included in the 2021, 2020, 2019, 2013 and 2012 reports of the Secretary-General on allegations of interrogation, travel ban and sentencing to 10 years of imprisonment for allegedly providing false information to outside sources, including UN human rights mechanisms. Mr. Al-Qahtani is currently held in Al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh. In December 2020 and March 2021, Mr. Al-Qahtani reportedly carried out hunger strikes jointly with other inmates to protest harassment and lack of family contact, access to books and essential medication. In April 2021, Mr. Al Qahtani also reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 and since 7 April 2021 has been denied any contact with the outside world.

Mr. Fowzan Mohsen Awad Al-Harbi is a human rights defender and member of ACPRA. The case of Mr. Al-Harbi was included in the 2021, 2020, 2019 and 2014 reports of the Secretary-General on allegations of arrest and detention for his cooperation with the UN. As of May 2020, he was serving a 10-year prison sentence at Al Malaz prison in Riyadh to be followed by a travel ban of 10 years. On 20 May 2021, special procedures mandate holders raised the case of Mr. Al-Harbi and other human rights defenders expressing concerns about their alleged arbitrary detention and long prison sentencing as well as abuse and torture in connection to their work (SAU 6/2021).

Mr. Issa Al-Nukhaifi is a human rights defender, anti-corruption activist and lawyer who advocates against the government’s policy of forced displacement of persons from the borders between Saudi Arabia and Yemen without adequate compensation. He has also been critical of and protested against Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. The case of Mr. Al-Nukheifi was included in the 2021, 2020, 2019 and 2018 reports of the Secretary-General following his six-year prison sentence, with a six-year travel and social media ban upon release for his cooperation with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty to Saudi Arabia during a visit in January 2017 (SAU 2/2017). In November 2019, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that Mr. Al-Nukheifi’s detention was arbitrary (A/HRC/WGAD/2019/71, paras. 76, 83, 90, 95), and raised particular concern about the reprisals against him for his consultation with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty (para. 93).  Mr. Al-Nukheifi is currently held in Al Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh. 

According to information received by OHCHR, between 6 and 14 March 2021, Mr. Al-Nukheifi joined other prisoners in a hunger strike in protest over harassment, included being denied family contact and access to books and newspapers. On 11 March 2021, he was reportedly transferred to hospital as a result of the hunger strike. On 20 May 2021, special procedures mandate holders raised the case of Mr. Al Nukheifi and other human rights defenders expressing concerns about the alleged arbitrary detention and long prison sentencing as well as abuse and torture in connection to their work (SAU 6/2021).

Mr. Khaled Al-Omair is a human rights defender who was arrested in January 2009 following the organization of a protest against the bombing of the Gaza Strip and was subsequently sentenced to eight years in prison for alleged illegal gathering and circulating information on internet pages.

There have been several communications sent by Special Procedures’ mandate holders regarding allegations of arbitrary arrest and detention of Mr. Al-Qahtani, including SAU 3/2021, SAU 12/2017, SAU 4/2016, SAU 11/2014, SAU 5/2013. We thank the Government for the response received to SAU 3/2021, SAU 12/2017 and SAU 4/2016, but regret that at the time of writing no response has been received in relation to the allegations raised in the two latter communications.


The case of Ms. Asmaa Al-Subaie

On 1 June 2021, officers allegedly affiliated with the Presidency of State Security raided the home of Ms. Al-Subaie without a warrant, and reportedly confiscated her personal electronic devices and took her to an unknown location.

It has been reported that the reason for her arrest and arbitrary detention is in response to her posts on Twitter, in which she expressed her views in the defense of women’s rights and in support of women subjected to domestic violence. Ms. Al-Subaie also posted on her Twitter account advocating for the rights of detainees, calling for their trials to be public and criticizing the sentences issued against them, as a result of their peaceful expression on the internet, and for calling for the release of all prisoners of conscience.

The case of Ms. Maha Al-Rafidi

On 28 September 2019, Ms. Al-Rafidi was allegedly arrested without a warrant and arbitrarily detained, after approximately thirty officials, including armed and hooded men and those in military uniform, raided the home of a family member of Ms. Al-Rafidi’s, where she was staying, and confiscated her electronic equipment. It is reported that she was kept in solitary confinement in Sha’ar Prison for two months following her arrest, after which she was beaten and subjected to ill-treatment, before being transferred to a general ward without charge.

Ms. Al-Rafidi’s arrest and arbitrary detention appears to be linked to her activity on Twitter, in which she tweeted in support of human rights, including for the release of prisoners of conscience. She has not yet been charged.

The case of Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, Mr. Fowzan Al-Harbi and Mr. Issa Al-Nukhaifi

On 15 August 2021, Dr. Al-Qahtani went on hunger strike in protest against the Al-Ha’ir prison administration’s ill-treatment of prisoners, the confiscation of his books and their unwillingness to transfer of a number of inmates who suffer from mental illnesses to a hospital for treatment, due to the danger that their presence poses to the other inmates.

Dr. Al-Qahtani was joined in his hunger strike by Mr. Al-Harbi and Mr. Al-Nukhaifi, and a number of prisoners of conscience, who are reportedly in poor health conditions in ward A8 of Al-Ha’ir Reformatory Prison in Riyadh. Reportedly, information regarding the detention conditions in this ward has been strictly limited by the authorities, through the monitoring of phone calls with families and the prevention of discussing matters related to the hunger strike or their demands.

The case of Mr. Khaled Al-Omair

On 6 July 2018, Mr. Al-Omair was detained without charge, after he allegedly filed a complaint with the Saudi Royal Court (the Office of the King) against an officer of the General Investigations Department, who reportedly tortured Mr. Al-Omair during his imprisonment from December 2008 to April 2017.

On 24 October 2019, Mr. Al-Omair was told that there will be no further hearing sessions for his case, nor was he given a list of charges. However, in April 2021, a further hearing session was held for Mr. Al-Omair before the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh, following which he was sentenced to seven years in prison, on the premise that he was “leading activities aimed at harming the security of the kingdom”.

On 30 July 2021, Mr. Al-Omair was also allegedly subjected to a murder attempt by another prisoner, who has not been identified since the attempt. Mr. Al-Omair has not been provided with any protection measures by authorities since this attempt.

On 16 August 2021, the Court of Appeal sentenced Mr. Al-Omair to two further years’ imprisonment, bringing the total sentence against him to nine years’ imprisonment. A travel ban for a similar period was also ordered against him, following the completion of his sentence.


While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of the above-mentioned allegations, we would like to express our serious concern for what appears to be a pattern of widespread and systematic arbitrary arrests and detention of persons, including human rights defenders, for peacefully exercising their legitimate human rights to freedom of opinion and expression, belief, assembly and association. The non-violent criticism of state policies or institutions, including the judiciary, cannot be made a criminal offence in any society governed by rule of law and abiding by human rights principles and obligations, and constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. We express further concern for the allegations of mistreatment of some of the above-mentioned individuals while deprived of their liberty.

In his 2021 report on cooperation with the UN in the field of human rights, the Secretary-General reported that multiple UN actors have identified alleged acts of intimidation and reprisals in the form of harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment, and heavy sentencing of those who cooperate or attempt to cooperate with the UN and their relatives (A/HRC/48/28 para. 105, Annex I para. 92). This includes allegations of reprisals concerning six individuals in detention and one who died in custody.  Additional updates to previously reported cases were not included due to fear of further reprisals. In its July 2020 report, the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances addressed the “important risk of reprisal in Saudi Arabia,” in the form of threats against those who report the disappearance of family members to the Working Group and “a culture of fear,” stating that Saudi Arabia has been included in eight out of ten reports of the Secretary-General from 2010-2019 (A/HRC/WGEID/121/1, Annex I, para. 3 and 47).  


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