Javier El-Hage and Celine Assaf Boustani are lawyers at the Human Rights Foundation.
Abulkhair, 37, is one of the most visible representatives of Saudi Arabia’s beleaguered civil society. In 2008, he organized a 48-hour hunger strike to condemn the detention of a group of political prisoners known as the “Jeddah Reformers.” He has since continued to challenge the absolute monarchy by representing high-profile dissidents and calling for democratic reform. One of his former clients and brother in law was Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was himself convicted in 2013 for “insulting Islam” and sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals.
In 2009, Abulkhair founded the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA), a civil society organization that reports on the abuses of the Saudi regime. He rapidly gained popularity in the region through his activism on social media. In 2015, Abulkhair was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and awarded the Ludovic-Trarieux human rights international prize.
The Saudi dictatorship is one of the world’s worst violators of individual rights, including the right to freedom of expression. The kingdom scored the worst possible grade in Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World index, which ranks all 195 countries on their level of respect for civil and political rights.
The royal family exerts overt control over most newspapers and media broadcasts. Self-censorship is widespread and freedom of the press is practically nonexistent. The kingdom is particularly intolerant of criticism directed at the government, its officials, its religion and its politics.
This is the context that Abulkhair was trying to change. On Oct. 29, 2013, after he criticized the lack of independence of Saudi judges, Abulkhair was sentenced by a criminal court in Jeddah to three months in prison for “contempt of the judiciary.”
Just a few weeks earlier, while the first case was still pending, a new battery of charges was unleashed. Because he was a public intellectual spreading his views through the Internet, the second indictment charged him with “harming the reputation of the Kingdom,” “inciting the public opinion against the Kingdom” and “subverting public order in the Kingdom,” under the newly-enacted anti-terrorism law and the anti-cybercrimes law.
One of the key tools in the repressive machinery of dictatorships the world around is the use of vague and overly broad “defamation,” “insult” and “incitement” charges to criminalize even the most basic expressions of dissent.
Holding an open mic event at Plaza de la Revolución or reading Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” will land you in a Cuban jail for “inciting disorderly conduct.” The 2010 Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo is still rotting in a Chinese prison for “inciting to overthrow the government” because, from his peaceable faculty position at a university, he drafted and circulated a pro-democracy manifesto inspired by Václav Havel’s Charter 77.
Abulkhair was sentenced in July 2014 to 15 years in prison, with a five-year suspended sentence, a fine of 200,000 riyals (approximately $53,000) and a 15-year travel ban following his sentence. In January 2015, the court of appeal upheld the conviction and said he would serve the full 15 years after Abulkhair refused to apologize for his acts.
Since his imprisonment in 2014, he has been moved several times to different detention centers from Jeddah to Riyadh. He has been subjected to sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and denied access to his lawyer and family. He was last transferred to Dhahban prison, outside of Jeddah, and on June 7, he started a hunger strike to protest the ongoing ill treatment by his jailers who were denying him access to medical treatment and books. On June 12, Abulkhair ended the hunger strike after the authorities reinstated his access to books.
In a phone call over the weekend where he spoke to us in good spirits, he said that the public prosecutor assigned to his case has offered on several occasions that the king would release him if he repents for his crimes. Abulkhair’s response? That he’d rather spend today reading in a prison as Saudi Arabia’s freest man.