Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, created five years ago to handle terrorism suspects, would seem a strange venue to try two of the country’s foremost human rights champions. The case against them reads not like a terror plot but a mission statement for a civil liberties group.
But the court ruled last month that their Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which called for peaceful change, the rule of law, free elections and a parliament, was “like al Qaida” because it challenged the legitimacy of the absolute monarchy.
It sentenced Mohammed al Qahtani and Abdullah al Hamid to 10 years and 11 years, respectively, in prison, to be followed by long bans on travel outside Saudi Arabia. It also ordered the closing of their group.
Such sentences would be a big setback for any human rights movement. But the two defendants, both university professors with doctorates, were prepared to go to jail to focus attention on the need for peaceful political reform in their homeland. Their strategy was to put the special court, which they say operates under the Interior Ministry, on trial – by challenging its every move and using social media to keep followers abreast of every turn in the investigation.
On hearing the verdict, the two men embraced. Qahtani, 47, called his sentence “a badge of honor,” and Hamid, who court documents say is 65 and who's been jailed seven times, said the trial proved his longstanding contention that the Saudi judiciary is “not independent.”
“We are proud of our sentences,” he added.
Now that they’re behind bars, held in the Ha’ir prison with accused murderers, rapists and drug dealers, the party that seems to be tied up in knots is the Saudi government. It took Judge Hammad al Omar until Tuesday, more than six weeks after jailing the two men, to deliver the written verdict.
Qahtani’s attorney rejected the 100-plus-page ruling April 17 because pages were missing and the judge demanded that it be kept secret.
The trial, which began in June, casts a harsh light on America’s most important ally in the Persian Gulf, the world’s biggest oil producer and the home country of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers who staged the 9/11 attacks.
It raised a basic question: Can an absolute monarchy defeat terrorism by jailing the advocates of peaceful reform – as if they were terrorists – or does the suppression of civil society encourage far more radical behavior?
The human rights case also is a sign that the Arab Spring is still alive and on the move in places where it might least be expected.
Qahtani, who received his graduate education in the United States, at Temple and Indiana universities, said he was inspired by George Washington and Martin Luther King.
His wife, Maha, 40, who now lives in the United States with their children, where she’s pursuing an undergraduate degree, said Qahtani was able to stay out of jail as long as he did because he had a political strategy to be polite.
“He said all the time it was like a game. You have to understand the game. Don’t make everyone the enemy. Try to give advice. Choose the one who’s responsible. Tell them, ‘We’re with you,’” she told McClatchy.
When Qahtani and Hamid founded the human rights group, which uses the abbreviation ACPRA, in 2009, their first target was the government’s decision to hold secret trials under a terrorism law, rather than undertake political reform. The two dissidents drew a connection between the Saudi system of government and al Qaida’s 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“When government alienated people from the political process and acted unilaterally, without social consensus . . . the tragic incidents of 9/11 took place,” they wrote.
They sought, but never received, permission for their group to be legally recognized. But their operating style – sending long, thoughtful letters with gentle but sober advice to King Abdullah – may have thrown the government off-guard.
In October 2009, after the Red Sea port of Jeddah was hit by flash floods, killing as many as 500, ACPRA said the absence of a sewage system was because of “political corruption.” A great deal of public money “is going into private accounts and depriving citizens of basic services,” they wrote. They warned that the only way to prevent a repetition of the Jeddah disaster was to have “popular participation in political decision-making.”
An elected government “is the cure for political corruption and the only guarantee of transparency, monitoring, accountability and integrity,” they wrote.
The tone sharpened early in 2010 when they wrote the king that the mistreatment of a fellow human rights advocate arrested three years earlier violated Saudi law. Sheikh al Rashoudi had spent 31 months in solitary confinement, an action by the Interior Ministry that “causes the citizen to lose faith in the laws of the country and its institutions,” they said in the public letter.
After the Arab Spring toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, the Saudi government in July 2011 tightened its laws to prevent anything like that from happening there. Qahtani publicly called for King Abdullah to open proceedings against the interior minister, whom he blamed for the new law, under which anyone questioning the king’s integrity could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Prince Naif bin Abdul-Aziz, then interior minister, offered an amnesty if they would stop their work, according to an ACPRA web posting. The two men responded defiantly that they would not stop their work until the ministry stopped violating human rights and an independent commission was set up to investigate those violations.
The letters kept coming, along with the not-so-gentle advice: fire the interior minister – Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, who took the post in June following Naif’s death, and Muhamed bin Nayef, who succeeded him in November.
As the investigation proceeded, Qahtani turned to social media, routinely mocking the regime on Twitter, where he has 71,500 followers, and producing a series of lectures that can be downloaded from YouTube.
In the run-up to the sentencing, Qahtani warned on Jan. 21: “Arab despot regimes must come to their senses, end political stagnation before the people enforce it upon them.” He frequently condemned the Saudi interior minister, Nayef. “There would come a day in Saudi Arabia where Riyadh Executioner (Nayef) and his top Saudi MOI (Ministery of Interior) lieutenants would be detained & tried in court.” And on March 5, he tweeted that when asked by an interrogator: “Do you discuss Saudi regime change into a constitutional monarchy?” he wrote that his response was “of course, I consider myself advocate of CM.”
Hamid in an earlier trial session – a furtively photographed YouTube video emerged in mid-April – was every bit as defiant. “Whether we are imprisoned or not, the state cannot shut up all the people calling for human rights,” he told the judge. “Human rights activists . . . are like starfish. If the starfish loses a leg, it grows another one.”
Two days before their sentencing March 9, the two men issued another letter, calling for the immediate dismissal of Nayef, formation of an independent body to investigate him, the cancellation of all sentences passed in secret trials, the invalidation of all confessions obtained under duress or without a lawyer, and the abolition of the Specialized Criminal Court.
The trial showed the regime’s anxiety. With plainclothes and uniformed police packing the courtroom, human rights activists and friends could enter only after signing in, showing their national identity cards, and leaving pens, notepads, phones and recording devices behind.
The two men were accused of describing the Saudi system as a “police regime that carries out injustice and repression” and defaming senior Wahhabi clerics by claiming they supported regime-issued laws in exchange for monetary and moral support. They were accused of inciting public opinion by accusing the security services of repression, torture and assassinations, setting up an unlicensed society and using it to spread disunity and division, and publishing accusations against the judiciary and the executive.
In reading his judgment, Omar made clear that calling for democracy was illegal. He declared Qahtani and Hamid guilty of calling for rule by elected officials, not Islamic scholars, and describing detainees in Saudi prisons as innocent.