As the Saudi authorities continue their campaign of mass arrests, affecting many sectors of society but focused on human rights activists, advocates of reform and anyone else the authorities think might dare to criticise their violations, it has become clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that the aim is to silence Saudi society and eliminate all voices critical of the regime’s failings. The arrests have coincided with a propaganda campaign to promote the Crown Prince as a reformer who seeks to develop and liberalise the country, allow freedoms and grant rights, while in actual fact the situation on the ground is completely different, with oppression on the increase as never before.
More serious still is the fact that the Saudi authorities, attempting to fend off international pressure and justify their appalling oppression, have embarked on an effort to damage the reputation of the detainees. They have promised several times to broadcast footage of them making confessions, and have leaked information by various routes (ALQST has heard this from several international bodies that the Saudi authorities have contacted) that they are about to broadcast video clips of individuals who have suffered arbitrary arrest, with the intention of deceiving and frightening the public by claiming the existence of secret organisations and cell groups to which the detainees purportedly belong.
According to this leaked information, one of the alleged groups has links with human rights NGOs and neighbouring states, and aims to overthrow the Saudi regime; another group allegedly has links with the Muslim Brotherhood and aims to seize power in the country; and a third group is said to have a plan for the secession and independence of Hijaz Province.
The authorities have put together a collection of tweets, articles and past statements by the detainees along with excerpts from answers they have given during interrogation (which may include statements made under duress) to use in the production of a documentary aimed at making people fearful of activists, and justifying their campaigns of repression – in other words, to frighten and silence Saudi society, and also the outside world.
The authorities are using things activists have said in favour of human rights, or against creating tensions with neighbouring states, to label them as members of the first “group” – the one said to have links with foreign states, NGOs and media – and claim that they aim to overthrow the regime and set up an alternative in the name of democracy.
Similarly, the authorities have used statements made by people who opposed the Egyptian revolution and expressed sympathy for the victims of the Rabaa and Nahda massacres carried out by the Sisi regime in Egypt with Saudi backing, or who have expressed sympathy for the Palestinian resistance, to slot them into the second “group”, which, according to the government, shares with the Muslim Brotherhood the ambition of seizing power in Saudi Arabia.
The authorities have also assembled comments opposing the concentration of power at the centre, the marginalisation of other provinces and the neglect of Mecca and Medina, and attempts to homogenise different sectors of Saudi society and marginalise Hijazi heritage and culture, and held these up as proof of belonging to the third “group”, the one allegedly seeking Hijazi secession. The authorities see all of this as justification to put the detainees on trial for peaceful civil actions for which they should not be punished – a justification that domestic and world opinion may or may not accept. They may perhaps try them in the Specialised Criminal Court (the country’s terrorism tribunal) and sentence them to long prison terms, as they have done with activists and reformists before, just as they have previously conjured up non-existent spy rings.
ALQST is publishing this statement to warn people against accepting the government’s allegations before the authorities go ahead and take action against innocent people. ALQST maintains that they have been arbitrarily detained and should be released immediately and unconditionally. Their arrests meet all of the criteria for arbitrary arrest laid down by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which are that:
- There is no legal basis for the arrest; or
- The arrest results from the detainee’s exercise of their basic rights; or
- The trial does not meet the international norms relating to fair trials.
We would point out that those detained in last September’s mass arrests, including reform advocates Dr Salman al-Odah, Ali al-Umri and Dr Mubarak bin Zu’air, economist Essam al-Zamil and prominent reformist academic Abdullah al-Maliki, were all arrested arbitrarily, without any legal justification, for exercising their basic rights, and have now been held without trial and without legal representation for more than ten months.
The authorities have also arrested several female and male human rights activists, including Dr Aziza al-Youssef, Eman al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, Ibrahim al-Mudaimeegh, Mohammed al-Rabiah, Mohamed al-Bejadi, Nouf Abdulaziz al-Dosari and Mayaa al-Zahrani, for their human rights activities. The authorities claim that correspondence with foreign NGOs and media constitutes high treason and have launched a vicious campaign of defamation against them, when all they have done is perfectly legitimate and should not be subject to punishment. The activists continue to come under pressure and suffer harassment; they have not been allowed visits or access to lawyers, and their whereabouts have still not been disclosed. Although the authorities claim that the detainees are allowed access to lawyers, it is impossible to find anyone to represent them because of the heavy constraints placed by the authorities on all lawyers who defend prisoners of conscience. Dr Ibrahim al-Mudaimeegh, for example, was recently arrested principally for being Saudi Arabia’s leading defender of prisoners of conscience. Human rights activists Waleed Abu al-Khair, Abdulaziz al-Shubaily and Fowzan al-Harbi, who all represented detained human rights activists before being arrested themselves, suffered similar harassment. Other lawyers who have represented prisoners of conscience have ended up living abroad or in isolation.
ALQST warns people not to be misled by the Saudi authorities’ attempts to justify their oppression and blacken the reputations of prisoners of conscience, and urges everyone to keep up pressure on the authorities to release all prisoners of conscience.