Mohammed Al-Qahtani and Abdullah Al-Hamid, two prominent Saudi human rights activists, were handed 10-year prison sentences this weekend, concluding a trial that began in June 2012, and has since gained international attention.
Al-Qahtani, an economics professor, has been an outspoken critic of the Saudi judicial system and monarchy. He has spent most of his energy focusing on the arbitrary detention of political prisoners. In 2012, he pushed his criticism to dangerous levels when he demanded the country’s interior minister be tried for human rights violations.
On Saturday, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail, and handed a subsequent 10-year travel ban. He was charged with nine offenses including co founding an unlicensed organization and turning international organizations against the Kingdom. His partner, Al-Hamid was sentenced to 11 years in prison – five years added to a six-year previous sentence that was pardoned.
As part of the ruling, their organization, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), has also been shut down and had their assets seized. ACPRA has been functioning since 2009, despite having their operations threatened and website shut down on numerous occasions, according to Al-Qahtani. The organization works with human rights groups outside of the country to help families of political detainees file claims against the Saudi government with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions.
“ACPRA is the only credible organization sending us cases and and doing this kind work. But it’s a great loss for the Saudi’s more than it is for the international organizations,” says Karim Sayed, a regional officer at Alkarama, a human rights NGO based in Switzerland. Sayed says that shutting down ACPRA will only fuel an increase in social unrest in Saudi Arabia. “In the last few months, we’ve seen demonstrations against arbitrary detention are multiplying… Instead of taking this opportunity to reform, they have made it worse.”
I met Al-Qahtani in May of last year in Riyadh. He was under investigation then by the Ministry of Interior, but hadn’t received any formal charges yet. He spoke at length about his potential imprisonment.
The 46-year old father of five also spoke about the thoughts of leaving his family.
Al-Qahtani and Al-Hamid plan to appeal their sentences in a hearing next month.