Statement On The Case of Salman al-Awda

A year after the horrifying, premeditated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi Government, Salman al-Awda, a renowned Saudi reformist cleric, may be sentenced to prison or even death for acts of peaceful expression that are protected under international law and in every civilized nation.

According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi authorities brought Mr. al-Awda, 61, before the Specialized Criminal Court, the country’s terrorism tribunal, on September 3, 2018. It was the first time he was allowed contact with a lawyer since his arrest a year earlier, which itself is a flagrant violation of international law. At the hearing, prosecutors announced 37 charges and their intention to seek the death penalty. After reviewing the charges, Human Rights Watch determined that “[t]he vast majority of the charges are connected to his alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents. None refer to specific acts of violence or incitement to acts of violence.”

Concerns about Mr. al-Awda and similar cases in Saudi Arabia have been echoed by distinguished UN human rights experts, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. They have deplored Saudi Arabia’s misuse of counter-terrorism and security-related laws against religious figures, writers, journalists, academics and civic activists, who are being targeted, in what they describe as a “worrying pattern of widespread and systematic arbitrary arrests and detention”. In a joint statement in January 2018, they said: “The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are severely restricted in Saudi Arabia. . . We are witnessing the persecution of human rights defenders for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association and belief, as well as in retaliation for their work. The Government has ignored repeated calls by UN experts and others to halt these violations, rectify them, and prevent their recurrence.”

The UN experts appropriately asked for “the Government’s clarification about how these measures are compatible with Saudi Arabia’s obligations under international human rights law, as well as with the voluntary pledges and commitments it made when seeking to join the Human Rights Council.” They noted that “[d]espite being elected as member of the Human Rights Council at the end of 2016, Saudi Arabia has continued its practice of silencing, arbitrarily arresting, detaining and persecuting human rights defenders and critics.” It makes a mockery of the Saudi Government’s farcical attempt to pass itself off as a credible defender of human rights.

Finally, the UN Special Rapporteurs called for the release of Mr. al-Awda, who they described as a “reformist” and “an influential religious figure who has urged greater respect for human rights withinSharia”, as well as academic and writer Abdullah al-Maliki, entrepreneur Essam al-Zamel, and Abdulaziz Al Shubaily and Issa bin Hamid al-Hamid, founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

The case of Salman al-Awda and these other prisoners of conscience illustrates again the hypocrisy and ruthless policies of a government that purports to be reformist. Allowing women to drive, or to travel without the permission of a male family member, is hardly reformist in the 21st Century, especially if one simultaneously imprisons women’s rights activists and a courageous cleric like Salman al-Awda. They are the true reformists, and the real crime, the real threat to public security, which should be universally condemned, is their arrest, imprisonment, and prosecution by the Saudi Royal Family.

So far, not a shred of evidence has been produced that Mr. al-Awda or any of these other individuals committed a recognizable crime, as opposed to something made up by the Saudi Government and falsely labeled as a crime. Unless such evidence is immediately produced in a fair, public trial and Mr. al-Awda is afforded an opportunity to defend himself, as due process requires, he should be released and the Saudi authorities should apologize to him and his family for unjustly depriving him of his liberty.

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