President Obama Urged to Meet with Civil Society Leaders, Press Saudi Government to Release Jailed Activists During Upcoming Trip

Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First today called on President Obama to raise human rights concerns with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders during his trip to Saudi Arabia to participate in the GCC Summit on April 21. The call came in a letter to the president, urging him to highlight the repression suffered by independent civil society activists, to make time to  meet with members of Saudi civil society, and to call for the release of wrongfully detained prisoners and Saudi human rights activists Raif BadawiWaleed Abu al-Khair, and Ashraf Fayadh. Badawi, al-Khair, and Fayadh are currently serving prison sentences for supporting freedom of expression and standing up for the rule of law.

“I urge you to call for the release of these activists [Badawi, Abu al-Khair, and Fayadh] by name while you are in Saudi Arabia,” wrote Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino. “These prisoners should be essential partners in U.S.–led multilateral efforts to counter violent extremism. Please remind the Saudi authorities to live up to their responsibilities as a partner in the global CVE initiative and to end the persecution of non-violent government critics.”

Saudi activist Raif Badawi was jailed in 2012 for hosting a website devoted to open discussion of religious and political issues, which pushed back against extreme interpretations of religion. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes. Waleed Abu al-Khair, a prominent Saudi human rights lawyer and NGO leader, was jailed in 2013 and is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for his human rights advocacy. Ashraf Fayadh, an internationally recognized artist and poet, was sentenced to death for apostasy and is now serving a jail term.

Human Rights First notes that this week’s trip will likely be the final opportunity for President Obama to raise human rights concerns directly with Saudi leaders while inside the kingdom before the end of his term in office. The letter notes that the president has repeatedly emphasized support for civil society as a key component of an effective strategy for countering violent extremism, stating during the February 2015 White House Summit that, “When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied — particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines — when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.”

GCC member states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates regularly target civil society and human rights activists with arbitrary arrests and imprisonment. Human rights abuses are common in Saudi Arabia, including severe restrictions on women’s rights, religious freedom and freedom of expression, the use of harsh punishments that constitute torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and alarming new calls for an expansion of the use of the death penalty for same-sex sexual behavior, among many others. In recent years the Saudi government has clamped down on the activities of peaceful independent civil society activists, targeting those who have spoken up for political reform, religious tolerance, women’s rights, and for an end to discrimination and religious sectarianism.

The president’s trip comes after the State Department’s recently released annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. At the launch of this year’s reports Secretary Kerry noted, “governments that deny political liberty forfeit public trust, thereby opening the door to civic unrest of all types, including, I might add, violent extremism.”

“As you remarked in 2014, to respond to the global crackdown on civil society the world needs ‘an even stronger campaign to defend democracy.’ Saudi Arabia’s crushing of its nascent independent human rights community is a glaring instance of this global crackdown,” added Massimino. “[M]aking time in your schedule to meet directly with independent civil society activists, including those working in areas that may be regarded as sensitive by the Saudi government, like human rights, would send a strong message to the Saudi people about the U.S. commitment to championing freedom.”


Published on April 18, 2016


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