(Beirut) – Saudi prosecutors filed criminal charges against two activists in late October 2016, for “forming an unlicensed organization” and other vague charges relating to a short-lived human rights organization they set up in 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. None of the alleged “crimes” listed in the charge sheet resemble recognizable criminal behavior, and none of them took place after October 2013.
The defendants, Mohammad al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi, formed the Union for Human Rights in 2013, but they were unable to obtain a license for the group because Saudi Arabia generally did not allow independent non-charity nongovernmental organizations at that time. In late 2015, Saudi Arabia issued a new law that would theoretically allow such groups to obtain licenses, but authorities have continued to jail and prosecute independent activists based on similar charges.
“There is no justification for Saudi Arabia’s prosecution of activists for simply forming groups to call for human rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But the decision to prosecute activists for forming a human rights group now that the law allows for such groups indicates that the Saudi authorities still view independent civil society an enemy rather than an ally.”
A Saudi activist with direct knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that al-Otaibi and a group of three others formed the Union for Human Rights in April 2013. Members of the group were summoned for investigation by Saudi authorities less than one month later, after the organization issued several statements via social media. All of the founders pledged to close the organization.
In late April 2013, the group’s founders applied for registration with the Social Affairs Ministry, since reorganized as the Labor and Social Development Ministry. The ministry rejected the application in May. In the rejection letter, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, the director general of charitable associations and institutions wrote that, “...in studying the application it became clear that it is not in line with the regulation on charitable foundations and associations ... we advise you to await the issuance of the law on civil associations and institutions, which provides for the establishment of civil associations in the area of human rights.” Authorities issued the associations law in November 2015.
Authorities summoned al-Otaibi and al-Attawi again in March 2014, and both pledged to stop issuing statements, reports, or participating in TV interviews.
According to the charge sheet, al-Otaibi and al-Attawi face a series of vague charges including “their participation in forming an association and announcing it before acquiring the necessary license,” “their participation in drafting, issuing, and signing a number of statements …over internet networks that include offending the reputation of the kingdom...,” and al-Otaibi faces the charge of “making international human rights organizations hostile to the kingdom by publishing on a social media site false reports about the kingdom...”
Though all the founders signed the pledge to halt all human rights activism, the charge sheet states that after monitoring his compliance with the pledge, “it became clear that [Mohammad al-Otaibi] continued with his previous path and a number of his violations of it were documented…” The “violations” the charge sheet goes on to lay out, however, refer only to activities that supposedly occurred prior to the pledge, including “meeting members of and sympathizers with dissolved [Saudi Association on Civil and Political Rights] ...the last meeting of which occurred on September 14, 2013.”
Of the charges levied against the two men, one is tied to a violation of article 6 of the Saudi cybercrime law, which proscribes “producing something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network,” and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Saudi Riyals (US$800,000).
Similar cases in the past against human rights activists have resulted in prison sentences of between 5 and 15 years.
“Saudi Arabia regularly charges its domestic critics with harming the reputation of the country, but prosecutions like this do far more damage to the country’s reputation and often prove that its critics’ complaints are spot on,” Whitson said.