U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is methodically harassing, detaining, and abusing human rights campaigners, going to "extreme lengths to hound critics into silent submission," according to a report released Thursday by Amnesty International.
"The Saudi Arabian authorities have consolidated their iron grip on power through a systematic and ruthless campaign of persecution against peaceful activists in a bid to suppress any criticism of the state in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings," said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.
Entitled Saudi Arabia’s ACPRA: How the Kingdom Silences Its Human Rights Activists (pdf), the report focuses on the stories of 11 campaigners with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which Amnesty describes as "one of the country’s few independent human rights organizations." Since the group was created in 2009, each of its founding members has been targeted by Saudi authorities: three are serving prison terms of up to 15 years; two are currently incarcerated without trial; three are awaiting trial, with the likelihood of incarceration; and three stood trial and are currently released.
But these numbers only tell part of the story. Most of the 11 members detained were held incommunicado for time spans ranging a few days to several months. Once they made it to trial, they faced charges ranging from "breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler" to "inciting public opinion against the authorities" to "terrorism" under relatively new legislation aimed at providing the state cover to go after peaceful dissenters, according to the report. Furthermore, judges, lawyers, defendants, and their supporters faced courtroom intimidation from feared security and intelligence officers during the trials.
Those who were incarcerated faced and continue to endure harrowing conditions in prison, including reported incidents of torture and degradation, prompting four of them to go on hunger strike. ACPRA member Mohammed al-Bajadi was force-fed after waging multiple hunger strikes, according to the report. "The world is dying around us in search of freedom and dignity. Is it too much to spend few nights in detention for them?" al-Bajadi tweeted during his temporary release from prison in August 2013.
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A video produced by Amnesty illustrates the toll of a ten-year prison sentence on the family of ACPRA member Mohammad al-Qahtani.
In a dark irony, the human rights campaigners were targeted for opposing the detention and torture policies of Saudi Arabian authorities. "ACPRA members spoke out repeatedly against the detention practices of the Saudi Arabian authorities and were especially critical of the Ministry of Interior and its feared security and intelligence branch, the General Directorate of Investigations (GDI) or al Mabahith, whose officers wield extensive powers and are able to arrest, detain, torture and abuse those they suspect with impunity," states the report.
These cases occur in a context where "virtually all the country's leading human rights activists are the imprisoned victims of an unrelenting official crackdown on criticism, dissent and other exercise of the right to freedom of expression," the report states. The crackdown has worsened in the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2011 and includes a ban on public protests; prohibitions preventing some dissenters from traveling abroad; orders to cease human rights advocacy; crackdown on online activism and social media; and a series of new laws criminalizing dissent. As activist and writer Rami Elamine points out, Saudi Arabia's repressive practices expand beyond its own borders; the nation played a key counter-revolutionary role throughout the region during and after the 2011 Arab Spring.
Amnesty, which often shies from criticizing U.S. foreign policy, takes the step of admonishing the U.S. for its complicity in the abuses outlined in the report. "Saudi Arabia has long evaded effective international scrutiny for its dire human rights record," notes the organization in a summary of its findings. "It remains one of the USA’s long-standing allies in the 'war on terror' including the recent air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) armed group in Iraq and Syria."