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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia: One activist may be freed, others are detained

September 7, 2022

Saudi human rights advocate, Mohammed al-Qahtani, may soon be free after 10 years in prison. But his release, if it comes, coincides with what appears to be a new crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed al-Qahtani
It is still not clear whether Mohammed al-Qahtani will be freed in the next few monthsImage: privat

If the Saudi judiciary follows its own rules, then Saudi human rights activist, Mohammed al-Qahtani, will finally be free in November. He has been in prison in Saudi Arabia for 10 years.

Al-Qahtani, who is also an economist, founded the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, or ACPRA, in 2009.

He was arrested in 2012 and then in 2013, sentenced to a decade in jail as well as given a 10-year travel ban. Human Rights Watch said the charges against al-Qahtani and a colleague, who later died in prison, included "destabilizing security by calling for protests" and "setting up an illegal human rights organization."

The organization founded by al-Qahtani, who is in his mid-50s and formerly a professor at Riyadh's Institute of Diplomatic Studies, was dissolved too, by the court's order.

Previously ACPRA had called for the implementation of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia as well as a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, alongside the creation of transparent and accountable legal organizations.

A threat to the monarchy

In calling for a constitutional monarchy, the human rights organization was clearly challenging the Saudi political status quo. The country is one of the world's last absolute monarchies.

Just from a purely legal perspective, al-Qahtani should be released soon, Lina al-Hathloul, head of communications at a London-based organization, ALQST for Human Rights, told DW.

an activist, wearing a mask depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, holds up his hands, painted with fake blood as he protests the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabian human rights abuses have long been in the media spotlightImage: Depo Photos/abaca/picture alliance

"It might be too difficult for Saudi authorities to keep him after his sentence has ended," she suggested. "I think that it might bring pressure that they won't be able to handle."

On the other hand, prison releases are not conducted in any regular way in Saudi Arabia and the justice system is arbitrary, al-Hathloul added.

"We have seen a couple of cases like that, including that of Ashraf Fayyad, the Palestinian poet who stayed in prison almost a year beyond the end of his sentence. We hope this isn't becoming a trend," she said.

Al-Hathloul is well aware of the unpleasant vagaries of the Saudi prison system. She is the sister of prominent Saudi women's rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, who pushed to end a ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia. For this, Loujain was arrested in 2018 and served almost three years in prison. Although the activist is now out of prison, she cannot leave the country for another five years. Her sister, Lina, is now based in Europe.

Support from Berlin

Besides international human rights organizations, al-Qahtani also has advocates in Germany. Rainer Keller, a German member of parliament from the country's Social Democrats, is sponsoring al-Qahtani as part of a program called "Parliamentarians Protect Parliamentarians." This is a campaign initiated by Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, with a view to helping protect persecuted politicians and human rights defenders elsewhere.

Keller hopes his sponsorship could protect al-Qahtani. "In political terms, it can be used to create publicity [around al-Qahtani's case]," Keller explained. "We also try to use diplomatic channels to advocate on behalf of our sponsored party."

Keller also sees his sponsorship of al-Qahtani as sending an important message. "In Saudi Arabia, human rights violations are systemic," said Keller, who is a member of the Bundestag's Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid and the body's rapporteur for Saudi Arabia. "Against this background, it is important for us, as parliamentarians, to make an issue of these human rights violations persistently."
Of course, international engagement on behalf of imprisoned Saudi human rights activists is helpful, agreed al-Hathloul. But at the same time, she deplores the fact that many European governments still support the Saudi regime.

German politician Rainer Keller.
Rainer Keller is a member of the Bundestag's Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid Image: Deutscher Bundestag/ Inga Haar

"Their support to our regime is the only reason why our regime survives, and how it is able to double down on repression," she said, recalling the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2019, a murder that most likely happened with the knowledge of members of the ruling Saudi royal family, including the country's crown prince and de-facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, often known simply as MBS.

A pariah no more

"Mohammed bin Salman was sidelined after the murder of Khashoggi," al-Hathloul said. For several years he was isolated politically by US and European leaders. But recently he has been back in favor again, al-Hathloul pointed out. US President Joe Biden, who previously called Saudi Arabia "a pariah state" came to visit MBS in July. The same month, the Saudi royal visited French President Emmanuel Macron in France.

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a dinner at the Elysee Palace in Paris.
The international energy crisis has persuaded Western leaders to greet the Saudi Crown Prince more warmlyImage: Lewis Joly/AP Photo/picture alliance

It is despite the fact that bin Salman is behaving just as repressively as ever and "imprisoning people for 34 years or 45 years, just because of some tweets," al-Hathloul said, referring to two recent cases that have made global headlines.

In August, a Saudi court sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two and researcher at a British university, to 34 years in jail and gave her a 34-year travel ban for spreading "rumors" and retweeting Saudi dissidents like Lina al-Hathloul, according to court documents translated by UK daily The Guardian. Al-Shehab was not even a particularly prominent activist and had been returning to Britain after a family holiday when she was arrested in January 2021.

Later the same month, another woman, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, was sentenced to 45 years in prison"disrupting the cohesion of society" and "destabilizing the social fabric" with online activities, acording to human rights organization Dawn, which cites court documents. Al-Qahtani (who is not related to Mohammed al-Qahtani) is not a prominent activist either and it remains unclear what exactly she did online. She too had been arrested  in July of last year.

Salma al-Shehab speaks to a journalist at the Riyadh International Book Fair in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March 2014.
Salma al-Shehab (pictured in 2014): 34 years in jail for some tweets and likes on TwitterImage: Saudi state television/AP Photo/picture alliance

Cases like these demonstrate one thing, said German politician Keller. "Saudi Arabia is still very far away from what we would define as having standards on human rights," he told DW.

And that is a challenge for European governments, al-Hathloul argued. "They should understand the leverage they have with this regime," she said. "I mean, MBS cannot survive without them accepting him. But when they do accept him, he sees it as a green light to do whatever he pleases, including silencing the Saudi people."

This makes civil society movements in European and other Western nations all the more important, al-Hathloul continued.

"It's important for Western civil society to listen to Saudi civil society in the diaspora. They shouldn't be fooled by the Saudi [government's] narrative around reforms. Solidarity works and just one tweet can change things," she concluded. "It means the Saudi regime cannot cover up violations anymore."

This story was originally published in German. 

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East