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By Ines Tamaddon
Instead of a written constitution, Saudi Arabia follows Sharia law. Because of this, activists say, a strict interpretation of Islam is used to justify unfair trials, harsh repercussions, and limited freedoms for women. With many dissidents raising their voices to demand change and improve human rights, the government has tried to silence these reformists, according to Saudi protesters and international right organizations. Despite the Kingdom’s efforts, these activists are prevailing—calling for a written constitution, a government built on the rule of law and most importantly, freedom of speech.
Most recently, human rights defender and president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, faces eleven criminal charges, including breaking allegiance to the Kingdom and accusing the Kingdom of being oppressive and unjust. Al-Qahtani’s trial is scheduled to begin in Riyadh’s Criminal Court in September 2012.
Al-Qahtani is one of three prominent human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia facing trial. The other two, Abdullah Al-Hamid, another founder of ACPRA and Waleed Abu Alkhair were charged prior to Mr. al-Qahtani on similar accounts.
The Saudi government, an American ally, became curious of Alkhair’s relationship with the United States and found enough cause to begin an investigation. He was given an opportunity to have the charges against him dismissed if he signed a pledge promising to end his advocacy initiatives—but he said no. “[Many] human rights organizations and activists in Saudi Arabia, they ban them from traveling, because they want to stop their action. So, after they banned me they said, ‘Okay, we can fix everything, if you would stop and sign the pledge that you agree,’ and I refused.” He further explains, adding how “other human rights activists said, ‘Okay, we regret [what we did] we can sign the pledge’ or something like that, and they stopped, so they didn’t send them to the court.” Mr. Alkhair is one of the few that are brave enough to reject the government’s demands.
Although these trials coincide with popular protests for regime change in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia, Saudi reformist groups were calling for a written constitution, elected parliaments, and rule of law long before the Arab Spring. In 2007, a group of activists from a group called The Reformers, where al-Qahtani was an active member, were arrested due to their request for a constitution.
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, al-Qahtani admitted that he was nervous, writing, “I'm afraid they'll raid my home. The regime is very nervous. Since the 'Arab Spring,' the population is no longer passive. So what can the ruling family do? Suppress us or let the phenomenon grow?" It appears that the government is taking preemptive action to silence the protesters and stop the phenomenon from spreading. Yet despite the stronghold the Kingdom has over its citizens, Saudi’s are not backing down.
Alkhair says the Saudi government has become anxious with the recent uprisings of the Arab Spring. “They are afraid of what happened in the Arab Revolution, so they choose human rights defenders as an example for anyone who wants to [change] something, [that] we will punish you as we did with these three guys.”
Al-Qahtani is the most recent out of ‘these three guys,’ caught in the middle of the government’s game to silence opposition. According to Amnesty International, the Saudi government calls ACPRA an “unlicensed organization” and justifies al-Qahtani’s trial with accusations of trying to turn “international organizations against the Kingdom.”
An active member of a human security organization who wishes to remain anonymous, says the prosecution of Alkhair, al-Qahtani and other human rights defenders is a way to threaten others who seek political reform. “They will target the liberals, just to give a warning for others, because the liberals are the easy ploy, the most complex issues they just avoid. But ignoring them does not mean it will just make them vanish.” By persecuting those with no political affiliation, the message is indirectly sent to political rivals to stay quiet. However, she also adds, “persecuting people like [al-Qahtani] won’t help” the situation. “The Saudi’s up to now are not in favor to persecute political figures to avoid internal unrest.” These arbitrary charges against al-Qahtani suggest the government is losing its confidence and fears brewing unrest.
No doubt, “the charges against them are all very similar [and] it might indicate some change in how the government deals with activists,” explains Ahmed Al Omran, a Saudi journalist and founder of the renowned blog Saudi Jeans. However, he adds that although “they are using the legal system to crack down on activists, it’s still to early to tell what’s the outcome of these court cases.”
One thing is clear—“if the motivation [of these charges] was intimidation, then it did not work because the activists are still out there, and they’re still talking,” adds Al Omran. In the same Los Angeles Times article al-Qahtani fearlessly declared, "I tell the interrogators: 'I want you to send me to prison. I want to see what's happening inside.’”
The rise of civic, public, and human rights activism in Saudi Arabia has escalated due to increased discontent with the structure of the Kingdom. For years, foreign governments have criticized—albeit softy—Saudi Arabia for its death penalty, unfair trials, torture, and the government’s absolute control over the citizens. In addition, women suffer severe discrimination and are denied equal employment rights.
These strict regulations have led activists such as Alkhair’s wife, Samar Baldawi, to advocate for gender equality. This past year, Badawi won the International Women of Courage Award, awarded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her work for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
The difference between Alkhair, Hamid, and al-Qahtani is that the latter two do not advocate for women’s rights. Alkhair and his wife have made quite a fuss in Saudi Arabia with their efforts to allow women to vote and drive independently. “They [see] that me and my wife have a relationship with Americans, that we have a foreign agenda, especially when my wife gets photos with Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton,” explains Alkhair of the government’s apprehension towards the power couple.
He clarifies that, despite the support he receives from inside Saudi Arabia, many religious radicals are relieved to see him go to court. “We were the first couple who was suing the government,” over women’s rights abuses Alkhair says.
The Saudi human security expert explains that activists such as al-Qahtani are tapping into the desires of many Saudis, making them the biggest threat to the Kingdom’s solidarity.
“It’s very hard to bring those voices to the outside world,” she says. “I think Saudi is struggling between modernity and necessity to change but not [wanting to] lose its own core identity.”
In a repressive society with high unemployment rates of 28.2 percent amongst the youth, limited opportunities, and absolute control in the hands of the government, al-Qahtani and Alkhair are fearless fighters seeking a stronger future for their country. It is determined activists like these men, who are willing to sacrifice their own future to bring fair trials and equal rights to a land that has never known either—that will one day force the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to reform.
Ines Tamaddon is an Editorial Assistant at World Policy Journal.
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