Human Rights Defenders and Political Prisoners in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain
Waleed Abu al-Khair is a Saudi attorney and human rights defender and the head of the Saudi Arabia Monitor of Human Rights, an independent human rights organization founded in 2008. Since 2014, he has been imprisoned on charges under the Kingdom’s sweeping terrorism law. He faces 15 years behind bars for criticizing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia in statements to the press and on social media.
Even prior to this long prison sentence, Waleed Abu al-Khair faced harassment, travel bans, and frivolous prosecution due to his human rights work. In 2013, he was subject to multiple criminal proceedings based on charges such as “offending the judiciary” and “inciting international organizations against the Kingdom,” reportedly for signing a petition that criticized the Saudi Arabian authorities’ repressive tactics in dealing with nonviolent government critics.
Raif Badawi is a Saudi blogger who was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for publishing a liberal blog. As a blogger, Badawi exercised his right to freedom of expression in a highly restrictive environment. He criticized the role of religious hardliners in Saudi politics and advocated for the separation of religion and politics. He described himself as a liberal and criticized those who claim to hold a monopoly on the truth, spreading what he described as a culture of death and ignorance.
Badawi was arrested in 2012 after religious hardliners issued fatwas against him describing him as an apostate. He has been convicted on several charges including insulting Islam. He was subjected to the first 50 lashes in early 2015, which sparked an international outcry. In December 2015, Badawi was transferred to an isolated prison and went on a hunger strike in protest. His wife and three children live in exile in Canada.
Ashraf Fayadh is an artist and poet in Saudi Arabia. Fayadh, who is of Palestinian descent and officially stateless, has curated international exhibits showcasing contemporary Saudi artists, including in Jeddah and at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
After a series of arrests and detentions in 2013 and 2014, Fayadh was convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death in November 2015. His alleged crimes include defaming Islam and Saudi Arabia, and distributing a book of his poems that the government claimed promoted atheism.
In February 2016, after human rights campaigners and artists worldwide helped to publicize his case, Fayadh’s death sentence was overturned. He was sentenced instead to an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes to be carried out in 16 installments.
Dr. Abdulkareem Al Khoder is a co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), an independent human rights NGO in Saudi Arabia, and a former professor in the Faculty of Islamic Jurisprudence at al-Qassim University.
In April 2013, Al Khoder was arrested as part of the Saudi government’s crackdown on ACPRA and its members. Al Khoder was originally tried in a regular criminal court and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013. In 2014, his case was overturned only to be retried in Saudi Arabia’s terrorism-focused Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). In October 2015, Al Khoder was convicted under the country’s revised anti-terror law and sentenced to ten years in prison, followed by a foreign travel ban, on charges stemming from his nonviolent human rights work with ACPRA.
Abdulrahman Al Hamid is a political prisoner in Saudi Arabia. He is a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) and served as the organization’s first president when it was founded in 2009. In 2015, he was sentenced to nine years in prison followed by a nine-year travel ban, on politicized charges related to his work as a civil society leader.
Al Hamid was arrested by Saudi authorities in 2014, days after he and other activists signed a statement calling for the Minister of Interior to be put on trial “for his policy in suppressing public freedoms.” In October 2015 he was convicted of vague offences including “incitement against public order” and “spreading chaos” for taking part in drafting and publishing a statement that called for reform. Abdulrahman Al Hamid is the ninth of ACPRA’s founding members to be sent to prison since 2012.
United Arab Emirates
Ahmed Mansoor is one of the few human rights defenders living in the United Arab Emirates who independently monitors human rights abuses within the country. He regularly raises the UAE’s violations of international law, human rights, and rule of law. He has been jailed multiple times for his efforts and is currently banned from travelling abroad.
Mansoor began focusing on civil and political rights initiatives in the UAE in 2006 when he successfully campaigned for the release of two individuals jailed for voicing public criticisms of the authorities. His work focuses on freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, torture, due process, and judicial independence.
In 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring protests, Mansoor was detained along with four other Emirati activists for supporting a petition calling for democratic reform. He was convicted for “insulting officials” but then released on a presidential pardon after eight months in prison. However, Mansoor remains banned from leaving the country and has been denied a passport, violating his right to freedom of movement.
Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is the co-founder and former president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR). He began his pro-democracy activism as a student in London and later received asylum in Denmark. After twelve years abroad in exile, Bahrain granted Al Khawaja amnesty and he returned to the country in 2001. He founded the BCHR and persistently advocated for human rights and democracy despite harassment from the authorities, arbitrary arrests, and prosecutions.
During the 2011 pro-democracy Bahraini uprising, Al Khawaja organized peaceful demonstrations across the country. He was arrested in April 2011 for his role in the protests and tortured in detention. In May of that year, he and twenty other pro-democracy activists were charged before a military court, in closed proceedings, for vague terrorism-related crimes. Al Khawaja was convicted of participating in terrorism to overthrow the government, although there is no evidence he ever participated in or incited violent acts. In June 2011, Al Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison.
Zainab Al Khawaja is a Bahraini human rights defender serving a three-year sentence on the basis of politicized charges related to nonviolent acts, including tearing up a picture of the king. One of the leading voices calling for reform in Bahrain, Al Khawaja helped lead peaceful protests during the 2011 pro-democracy uprising. She has been arrested and released numerous times since 2011. Al Khawaja is serving her current sentence with her one-year-old son, Abdulhadi. International human rights groups, including Human Right First, have repeatedly called for her release.
Al Khawaja is the daughter of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, former president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, subjected to life imprisonment for his pro-democracy advocacy and nonviolent role in the 2011 protests. Before her imprisonment, Zainab drew attention to the condition of her father’s hunger strike and attempted to visit him in Jaw Prison in August 2014. Her sister, Maryam Al Khawaja, has been sentenced in absentia on politicized charges and advocates for democracy and human rights in Bahrain from abroad.
Naji Fateel is a blogger and human rights defender who co-founded the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. He is serving a fifteen-year sentence in prison for terrorism-related charges, related to his participation in peaceful protests in 2011 and his work to monitor human rights violations during Bahrain’s uprising. His trial in September 2013 was marred by due process violations, the evidence against him constituted coerced confessions obtained under torture, and he reportedly did not receive adequate medical treatment for injuries sustained while in prison in 2015.
Fateel had faced earlier death threats on social media for his peaceful role in the 2011 protests. He has been held incommunicado for multiple periods, and his family has at times been denied visits.
Nabeel Rajab is a Bahraini human rights defender subjected to a travel ban and threatened with prosecution for speech-related charges. He is the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, the founding director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, deputy secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights, and a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa advisory committee.
Rajab served two years in prison between 2012 and 2014 for charges related to his participation in peaceful gatherings advocating for fundamental freedoms and democracy. In late 2014 and early 2015 he was subjected to a series of other charges and arrests including for posts on Twitter critiquing the Bahraini military for provoking extremist ideologies, denouncing the torture of detainees at Jaw Prison, and raising concerns about air strikes in Yemen by the Saudi Arabia–led coalition.
He was arrested in April 2015, sentenced to six months in prison, but then released in July 2015 for medical reasons. However, Rajab remains subject to a travel ban related to some of the speech-related charges, which have not yet been dropped. His petitions to lift the ban have not been successful.