On weekend mornings, Ghazi al-Harbi likes to give his daughter driving lessons. Raaf is only 9, and women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia anyway, but that doesn’t stop her from hopping on her dad’s knee and taking control of the wheel. “Its O.K., I’m in control, don’t be scared,” she belts out over her father’s laughter. He guides her through a roundabout in the small city of Tabuk and lets her steer them back home.
Like most weekends, al-Harbi has a full day planned with his daughter. He’s spent the past seven years in prison and is now racing to get to know her. “I see my daughter and I don’t feel like she is my daughter. I am trying to bond with her, but I still feel she is not the daughter that I knew.”
Al-Harbi’s daughter was only 2 years old when he was arrested at the King Faisal Air Base, just a few miles from his house. That’s where he served as an officer in the Saudi Ministry of Defense. He was accused of conspiring to commit treason and proposing demonstrations against the state. He denies both crimes. “I have never been out in a demonstration. I have never called for a demonstration. I was simply going from my work to my home. I was living my life for my family.”
Al-Harbi says he spent four years in jail before he defended the charges against him in a court of law. “In the presence of the judge, I was taken with my eyes blindfolded and my feet tied. I said their accusations were not true and I requested to see proof.” According to al-Harbi, the judge ruled that he had served his full sentence and should be set free. However, as a political prisoner, he was under the domain of the Ministry of Interior, Saudi Arabia’s powerful national-security agency. Al-Harbi says the Interior Ministry overruled the judge’s decision and kept him in prison for another three years. “They said I was a unique prisoner and they do not have a law to treat me with.”
Following the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., Saudi Arabia endured its own set of al-Qaeda attacks against civilian and government targets. The Kingdom responded by giving its Interior Ministry unprecedented authority to go after terrorists. Mohammad al-Qahtani, a prominent human-rights activist in Riyadh, says this authority is being abused. “It gave the Ministry of Interior an open hand to detain anyone, throw them in prison, lock them up incommunicado for years without any legal protection, and what happened to Ghazi is a clear case of that open hand.”
Al-Qahtani founded the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, also known as ACPRA, one of the country’s human-rights groups. He says that cases like al-Harbi’s are common in Saudi Arabia. He gets around 8 to 10 calls a week from families claiming a brother, son or father is being held arbitrarily and without legal rights. Since 2004, ACPRA has been working with Alkarama, a Geneva-based organization that focuses on human-rights violations in the Arab world, to file cases with the U.N. But al-Qahtani says this approach has landed them under investigation themselves. “We have made it clear, we are not going to be quiet about this, we are going public. And I think that maybe ticked off the Ministry of Interior, and that’s why they are going after us right now.”
TIME asked the Ministry of Interior to comment on Ghazi’s case but received no reply.
In a meeting with a group of American journalists last spring, Brigadier General Mansour al-Turki, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, admitted they had made wrongful arrests. “Even if we make a mistake, that is O.K. From the interrogation, we will be able to tell if this person is clear and we will release him.” But he said the Ministry of Interior does not detain anyone without conclusive evidence of his involvement in terrorism. “Of the 11,000 people we have officially arrested, how many are in prison? Only about 50% [of] that number.”
A Human Rights Watch report from 2009 paints a different picture. The nonprofit interviewed over two dozen families of political detainees in 2006 and ’07, and its report says that “only two of whom reported that their relatives had received trials. According to the families, these two men had completed their sentences but remained in detention.” The report also describes prisoner beatings, sleep deprivation and threats to family members.
Al-Harbi was released in February. He says the conditions of his release were as puzzling as his imprisonment. For that reason, he’s afraid he could end up back there at any time. “I am living in every meaning of the word, a nightmare. I am living in fear … I feel like I have no rights,” he says.
The officer has returned to his old post in the military although he is now taking orders from colleagues who previously not senior to him. His morning routine is exactly the same as it was before his imprisonment. He carefully folds the sleeves of his military jacket, laces up his boots and covers his head with a camouflage-rimmed hat. But the feeling he gets from wearing the uniform has changed. “I used to wear my uniform with pride, with dedication, and I used to go to the field, sit with the other soldiers and I was very proud … I am a different person than I was seven years ago.”
Produced in association with the International Reporting Project