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KSA : Two prominent human rights defenders sentenced to 10 and 11 years in prison after unfair trial

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The Saudi authorities should immediately release Mohammad Al Qahtani and Abdullah Al Hamid, two Saudi human rights defenders and co-founders of the Saudi Association for civil and political rights (ACPRA). The two men were sentenced last Saturday to 10 and 11 years in prison on accusations including "breaking allegiance to the King", "disseminating false information through foreign entities" and "forming an unlicensed organization". This trial and the ensuing heavy sentence is clearly the result of exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and association.
Last Saturday 9 March 2013, the Riyadh Criminal Court issued its verdict against Mohammad Al Qahtani and Abdullah Al Hamid, two prominent activists put on trial since June 2012. This 11th session was attended by about 100 individuals, including human rights activists such as Waleed Abu Al Khair, ACPRA members as well as international media outlets. Although the session was open to the public, the attendees were not allowed to take their mobile phones and pens into the court room and around 30 members of security services attended the session in uniforms. The two defendants were sentenced to 10 and 11 years of prison and banned from traveling for the same amount of time after completion of their prison sentence. The judge also ordered the dismantling of ACPRA, the human rights organization they co-founded in 2009 to document human rights violations in the Kingdom and provide assistance to families of individuals arbitrarily detained in Saudi prisons.

Twelve accusations were brought against the two defendants, including "breaking allegiance to the King", "disseminating false information through foreign entities", "forming an unlicensed organization" and "inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations". These accusations are directly linked to Al Qahtani and Al Hamid's human rights activities at ACPRA, one of the few independent human rights organizations in the Kingdom. For several years, ACPRA has been documenting human rights violations, in particular arbitrary detention. Recently, they gave their support to sit-ins organized by families of individuals detained for years without any legal procedure.

"ACPRA is the most active organization in Saudi Arabia documenting cases of human rights violations, this will have a grave effect on the information available to international organisations and the United Nations" said Karim Sayad, Regional Legal Officer for the Gulf at Alkarama "But it is a great loss for the Saudia authorities more than it is for  international human rights organisations. In the last few months, we have seen that demonstrations against arbitrary detention are multiplying... Instead of taking this opportunity to reform, they have made it worse".

During the trial, the judge stated that "ACPRA and Al Qaida were two faces of the same coin" as they would be 'illegal entities' stating that "the rulers have no legitimacy". Indeed, this type of accusation has been systematically part of the Saudi authorities' narrative in their attempt to put discredit on human rights defenders and organizations.

All founders of ACPRA have been subjected to reprisals for their human rights activities over the past few years. Suleiman Al Rashoudi, a 78-year-old lawyer and president of ACPRA, was arrested on 12 December 2012 for having publicly stated that the right of assembly and association was a right internationally recognized. Mohamed Al-Bjady, another co-founder of the Saudi NGO was sentenced by the Special criminal court of Riyadh on 10 April 2012 to 4 years in prison after unfair trial held in camera on the grounds of having co-founded a human rights organization and encouraged families of political prisoners to undermine the reputation of the state and the independence of the judiciary.

According to ACPRA, Mohammad Al Qahtani and Abdullah Al Hamid are clearly prisoners of conscience as "during the whole judicial procedure, they were interrogated on their opinions, writings, public statements on peaceful demonstrations and other human rights issues".

Before leaving the court room, the two human rights defenders stated: "Our trial illustrates the absence of independence of our judicial system that we have been denouncing over the years". They said they considered it as an "award" as this it illustrates perfectly what they have repeatedly condemned: the arbitrary nature of the Saudi judiciary system which sends thousands of innocent individuals to prison solely for having expressed their opinions.

On 10 April 2012, Mohamed Al Qahtani told the LA Times "I told the interrogators: I want you to send me to prison. I want to see what's happening inside."

Al Qahtani and Al Hamid were transferred after the trial to Al-Malaz prison, Riyadh. Abdulaziz, their defense lawyer, has 30 days to appeal the sentence.

Alkarama will continue to keep the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders up to date on this case, in particular as this is a further case of direct reprisals against individuals who have been collaborating with the United Nations mechanisms. Such reprisals invariably weaken the ability of the UN mechanisms to carry out their work of promoting and defending human rights in the world.