Saudi Rights Activist Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison

July 8, 2014

Several weeks ago, the Center for Inquiry planned to deliver a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, through our representative Josephine Macintosh, that forcefully condemned Saudi Arabia’s persecution and imprisonment of two dissidents -- Raif Badawi and Waleed Abu al-Khair -- and demanded that all charges against them be dropped, and that they be immediately freed. 

As you've probably heard by now, Saudi Arabia tried three times to stop this statement. You can view the statement here, watch video of that exchange here, and read some background on the story here.

You've probably also heard of Badawi's case, as CFI has been working on it for several years. Badawi, 30, is one of the founders of the website Liberal Saudi Network, which promoted open discussion on social issues and religion. On May 7, 2014, a Saudi court sentenced him to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a one million-riyal fine. Badawi has already been in prison for more than two-and-a-half years. We have organized protestspressed United States government officials, and, as mentioned, raised his case before the highest human rights bodies in the world. 

But you might not have heard of the case of Waleed Abu al-Khair. Al-Khair, 35, is a human rights lawyer and founder of the organization Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested for his human rights activism on April 15, 2014, and has been held in prison ever since. Until his arrest, he was representing Badawi. 

In fact, al-Khair is Badawi's brother-in-law; he is married to Badawi's sister, Samar, who just gave birth to their first child.

Which is why the Center for Inquiry is all the more outraged that al-Khair has just been found guilty (CNN) of "inciting public opinion against the government" and "insulting the country's leaders and judiciary," and sentenced to 15 years in prison, a 15-year travel ban after his release, and fined 200,000 riyals. 

As noted by CFI's communications director, Paul Fidalgo:

... our statement put on the record what everyone knows to be true, that Saudi Arabia fails every test for compliance with even the most basic tenets of universal human rights. As a member of the United Nations, it is implied that it shares a belief in what the UN charter says about "respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." As a member of the Human Rights Council, it must be held to a high standard indeed. As we declared in our statement, over the shouts of the Saudi representative,

As an elected member of this Council, Saudi Arabia is obliged to "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and "fully cooperate with the Council." If it is to retain any credibility as a member, we urge it to reform its laws so as to protect freedom of religion, belief, and expression, cease the use of corporeal punishment, and repeal Article 1 of its interior ministry’s decree defining atheism as terrorism.

And yet, Badawi and al-Khair have now been sentenced to a combined 25 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a 1.2 million-riyal fine for ... defending fundamental freedoms, such as the rights to religion, belief, and expression, and equality before the law. 

What can be done? Partly, change in Saudi Arabia depends on people in the country rising up and declaring they will no longer stand for these violations of basic decency. But what is also needed is international support for rights activists, and pressure on the Saudi government. As such, CFI is pleased to see that the U.S. State Department released a statement saying it is "troubled" by al-Khair's sentencing, and urging the Saudi government "to respect international human rights norms, a point we make to them regularly."

Indeed, as a coalition led by CFI recently wrote to the State Department, we need more than public statements. We need enagagement. 

Saudi Arabia is not simply a member of the international community – it is also a key ally and trading partner of the United States, which has enshrined in its Constitution the individual rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression, and plays a leading role in promoting these universal rights throughout the world. It is it odds with American principles and diplomatic goals to continue to engage with Saudi Arabia while not making clear that the country is failing to respect the most basic of human rights.

 In light of the above, we respectfully request that the State Department engage with Saudi Arabian government officials and make clear that it seeks the immediate release of al-Khair and Badawi, and an end to similar prosecutions.

If you want to join CFI in pushing the State Department to take action, please consider emailing or Tweeting at Secretary of State John Kerry. The more voices speaking out for Badawi and al-Khair, the better. 

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