On July 12, 2012 the Time magazine published a story titled “In Saudi Arabia, Dissent Is Alive and Well, but Only Online or in Private”. The video that accompanied the story shows Saudi rights lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khiar, on frame 43 second, saying “Every day I say to myself they will arrest me”. On 15 April 2014 Waleed was on his way to appear before a criminal court in Riyadh after a court in Jeddah sentenced him in October 2013, to three months in prison, but never implemented the sentence.
The Riyadh court session was supposed to be the fifth in Waleed’s appearance before the criminal law specialized in terrorism cases. Charges against him were about “contempt of judiciary”, “communicating with foreign entities”, “disgrace of country reputation through the media” and finally “incitement against country’s regime”.
How and why these are “terrorism-related” charges is not puzzling in a country where law has never been defined, and maybe not entirely surprising in an environment that showed no tolerance for dissent.
On that day, Waleed’s phone never answered incoming calls and no one knew if he was arrested for that sentence or because of any other charge. Next day, wife Samar Badawi traveled from Jeddah to Riyadh where the court told her that he was arrested and transferred to the notorious al-Hayer prison. She was not allowed to communicate or speak to him upon arrival at the detention facility.
Waleed received a sentence of 15 years imprisonment, out of which ten years to be served and five suspended in addition to a 15-year travel ban and a monetary fine in the amount of 200,000 Saudi Riyal (around USD 53,329). But the court of appeals severed Waleed’s sentence to 15 years of actual imprisonment with no suspension because he refused to “regret his actions”.
Some of the actions that he was implicated with include the gatherings which he used to convene in his Jeddah house, every Tuesday to discuss rights and politics- which the Time’s story referenced above videotaped one. You may see a young-man with a Che Guevara T-shirt in this video, but what you should not miss noticing is the spirit of discussion, the level of intelligence, the deep concern about state of the society and a keen desire to have a say in what is going around them. Sitting beside Waleed in this video is wife Samar Badawi, who also modeled the contemporary Saudi women who no longer accept to set in a dark corner of the house not able to discuss with others or even listen to what they say.
These moments/promises of liberty faded away completely in Saudi, albeit, at the time, they were evidently inspired by the massive public mobilization in neighboring Arab countries- revolutions or uprising you may want to call them regardless of what they evolved to now.
Waleed Abu al-Khair arrest is one of a number of many that targeted prominent rights defenders in the kingdom, including those who have created non-governmental organizations and spoke critically of the State arbitrary and repressive practices. He himself took a number of cases to defend political prisoners in the Kingdom. In his capacity as lawyer, he defended one of the defendants in the case known as Jeddah Reformists case in 2007. He brought a case against the Public Investigation Department (Mabahith) in 2009 for detaining his client Abdul Rahman al-Shumairi without charges.
Two significant stops in Waleed’s human rights defense path in Saudi, were his role in establishing the Human Rights Observatory in Saudi in 2008 and defending the founder of the Liberal Network in Saudi, Raif Badawi who was charged with insulting Islam.
When Human Rights Watch reviewed charge sheet against Wlaeed, it found out that it hardly contain anything but little extracts from statements he gave to a number of different media in addition to critical tweets from his timeline on twitter. The sentence “shows how far Saudi Arabia will go to silence those with the courage to speak out for human rights and political reform”. Amnesty International framed his arrest as part of “ongoing crackdown on dissent” and as punishment “for his work protecting and defending human rights”. He is a “prisoner of conscience” Amnesty conclude.
It has not apparently been enough to deprive Waleed from liberty and block 15 years of his life in prison for nothing but practicing a basic commodity of speaking out. On August 11, the Dublin based Frontline Defenders reported that Waleed was moved from Jeddah prison to Malaz prison in Riyadh and that he has been beaten and pulled on the ground. Basically lynched him- and that only shows how far Saudi authorities may go in ill-treating those who will dare to speak out.
His twitter account is still active, and while operated by friends and supporters, it still feed the messaged he himself would have posted with regards to what seems an endless course of arbitrariness, abuse, injustice and discrimination in Saudi. Nevertheless, too many people miss him, particularly his new born Jude who came to this world after he was arrested. In June this year, Waleed will be 36 years old and Jude will be less than a year old. If he served his 15-year sentence, he will be around 51 years old when he comes out and Jude will be around 16.
Waleed should not be a falling leave of what was hoped to be Spring in this lawlessness environment which Saudi is. His freedom is essentially an equivalent of sustaining hope for millions of Saudi young men and women that, some day; hopefully soon, they can freely talk.