Saudi Human Rights Lawyer Sentenced to 15 Years In Prison

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A prominent Saudi human rights lawyer has been sentenced to 15 years in prison, with a further 15 years ban on leaving Saudi Arabia once his sentence has finished.

Waleed Abu al-Khair was found guilty by the Specialized Criminal Court , an extra court set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases. It found him guilty of "undermining the regime and officials," ''inciting public opinion" and "insulting the judiciary."  The court also fined him 200,000 riyals ($53,000).

Saudi Arabia has no penal code. Instead, penalties are left up to the individual judge’s interpretation of sharia law.

Al-Khair founded the organization Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia in 2009. He came to prominence both nationally and internationally through a series of campaigns for human rights. One of his more famous victories was the case of Samar Badawi, who was imprisoned for disobeying her father, which is illegal under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. After Mr Abul-Khair took up her cause, he combined representing her in court with an online campaign called "Free Samar."

The campaign gained huge traction, and she was released in three weeks. Although the relationship began professionally, al-Khair and Samar fell in love and married. She gave birth to their first child last week while he was imprisoned. The Dailly Beast called them "Saudi Arabia's human rights power couple."

Al-Khair is perhaps best known in the West for defending Raif Badawi. Mr Badawi was targeted by the Saudi state for his blog, Saudi Arabian Liberals, which was deemed to be "insulting to Islam." The blog criticized the human rights situation in the country, as well as mocking some of Saudi Arabia’s more draconian organs of state, such as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. In May of this year, Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years imprisonment and a fine of one million riyals ($270,000).

Al-Khair refused to sign the verdict, or to recognize the legitimacy of the court trying him. He also renounced his right to appeal as part of his refusal to be complicit in acknowledging the legitimacy of the proceedings.

His wife, Samar Badawi, stood with him on the issue, saying that she fully supports his refusal to recognize the court or appeal the verdict. She told The Associated Press, "He rejected the verdict and refused to submit an appeal because he says this court is not legitimate. He does not see this court as legitimate."

She also stood by his decision in her own capacity as a human rights activist: “He is not a terrorist to be tried in this court," she said. "I am not only talking to you as his wife. I am talking to you as a human rights activist. I reject this court too."

Human rights organizations have called for al-Khair to be released. Amnesty International’s Said Boumedouha, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program, said, “Authorities in Saudi Arabia are clearly punishing Waleed Abu al-Khair for his work protecting and defending human rights. He is a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

Saudi Arabia’s contempt for human rights is not a new phenomenon. As far back as 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report titled Human Rights and Saudi Arabia’s Counterterrorism Response. In the report, they criticized the Kingdom’s strategy of arresting thousands of counterterrorism suspects and arresting many peaceful dissidents and human rights activists under the pretext of countering terrorism. In the original press release, the organization criticized Western tolerance of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses in the interests of shared strategic interest. Saudi Arabia runs a religious "re-education" program to combat terrorism, which the West supports.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said, “Saudi Arabia's response to terrorism for years has been to lock up thousands of suspects and throw away the key. The authorities made believe that religious counseling could replace trials, and now they are pretending that convictions after secret trials can legitimize continued detention."

Saudi Arabia, while officially condemning and acting against terrorism, has also been complicit in supporting Wahhabist and jihadist Sunni terrorism across the Middle East.

In a speech yesterday, Sir Richard Dearlove, former director of Britain’s Special Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) criticized harshly the Kingdom’s turning a blind eye to the financial support for jihadism that emanates from Saudi Arabia, saying, “Such things do not happen spontaneously.”

In the Wikileaks revelations of 2010, one statement signed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, dated 2009, drew attention to Saudi state support for terror: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” the memo said.  “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups

The arrest and detention of human rights activists by Saudi Arabia using anti-terrorism legislation has been continuing for years, while at the same time genuine support for terrorism is allowed to continue unchecked. Human rights activists are put under immense pressure by the regime to halt their work.

Speaking to Amnesty International earlier this year, al-Khair said, “This is a campaign that affects all human right defenders in Saudi Arabia. The option is either for the activist to sign a pledge to stop his activism and apologize, or to bear the heavy consequences for refusing to do so: prison, travel ban and deprivation of livelihood.”

Yet, like Raif Badawi and other human rights defenders, al-Khair remains resolute, saying, “I am pleased with what I did, and until now, despite all the harassment, I do not regret my choices. I am still on the right path. If you have a goal to live for, things become easier. My goals are justice, rights, freedom of expression and to be able to stand up and say that the regime is unfair.”

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David Harris

David Harris is the editor in chief of Clarion Project.

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