Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy Saudi Arabia’s Crackdown on Human Rights Defenders

Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, on January 12 in Saudi Arabia a prominent human rights lawyer, Mr. Waleed Abu al-Khair, was handed a five-year extension to his ten year prison sentence.  Mr. Abu al-Khair, who is the founder and director of the watchdog group Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, was also fined, banned from travel outside the county for fifteen years after his release, and his websites will be shut down. What were the crimes that brought about this sentence?  He was charged with harming the kingdom’s reputation and insulting judicial authority, among other violations related to his non-violent activism.

This case and others like it certainly have harmed the kingdom’s reputation, and insulted its judicial system, but the fault is not Mr. Abu al-Khair’s.

After years of defending human rights activists as a legal advocate in Saudi courts, he was called in front of a terrorism tribunal at the end of 2013 for a trial that from its earliest days was declared a farce by human rights organizations.  This was not the first time Mr. Abu al-Khair was made a target of the justice system, having first faced trial in 2011 for signing a petition that called for government reform.

During the fifth hearing in front of the terrorism tribunal he was jailed mid-trial under the January 2014 anti-terrorism law, which covers verbal acts that harm the reputation of the state.  Mr. Abu al-Khair was eventually sentenced to ten years for his activism amid growing international condemnation of Saudi repression.  His decision not to disavow his beliefs led to this week’s further sentencing.

Unfortunately, Mr. Abu al-Khair’s case is not unique.  As more Saudis have begun to speak out against government repression, the monarchy has responded by escalating its crackdown on dissent, including by using the already dubious terrorism tribunal system to punish human rights defenders.  

It is ironic that while Saudi officials condemned the brutal killings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, and their Ambassador attended the rally in Paris, their Justice Ministry was preparing to carry out the first of 1,000 public lashings of Raif Bawadi.  Like the cartoonists, Mr. Badawi has been accused of insulting Islam, and like them and his former lawyer, Mr. Abu al-Khair, he was simply exercising his nonviolent right of freedom of expression.  Needless to say, his persecution has drawn an international outcry, including by many of those who joined the Saudi government in denouncing the attacks in Paris.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have long been strategic allies, and we want that relationship to continue.  But the fundamental right of free expression cannot be a casualty of convenience.  The injustices I have described must be addressed.  Not only do these actions violate the Saudi government’s stated policy and its commitment as a member of the UN Human Rights Council to protect human rights, but they are a flawed strategy for discouraging dissent.  Ominously, as we have seen in many countries, they may cause critics of the government to resort to violence to achieve their goals.   

I urge the Saudi government to release Mr. Abu al-Khair and Mr. Badawi and dismiss the spurious charges against them.  This kind of repression and barbarity have no place in the 21st Century. 


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