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Saudi Arabia: Retaliation against activists abroad by persecuting families and treating them as hostages

لقراءته بالعربية اضغط هنا

The repression and targeting practiced by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in recent years against the people, activists, and human rights advocates has driven hundreds, if not thousands, to emigrate from the country.In emigrating, their goal is either to protect themselves from being targeted for execution, torture, prison, and unjust sentences; to freely engage in various political, rights, and media activities; or to address the country’s increasing tyranny, especially since the beginning of the reign of King Salman and his son in 2015.

After the government rid itself of internal activists and destroyed the structure of independent civil society, it turned to activists abroad to complete its repressive plan to stop the remaining voices from speaking freely. The government has used various methods, some mild and others harsh. The case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Turkey, exposed Saudi Arabia’s intentions and methods towards its citizens abroad who exercise their right to freedom of opinion and who demand reforms.

The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) has monitored and documented certain practices Saudi Arabia has used against some of the families and relatives of activists abroad. From what it has learned, the ESOHR believes that these are retaliatory measures concealed behind faulty laws, which has made virtual hostages of the victims who are in the activists’ inner circle.


Abdullah Al-Ghamdi

Saudi political activist (born April 19, 1975) living in Britain. Beginning in 2002, he spoke secretly about human rights violations while he was in Saudi Arabia. In 2004, after his emigration to Britain, he began to publicly demand civil, political, and social rights through blogging and media participation, and then through social media.

On March 26, 2018, the Saudi government arrested his elderly mother, Aida Al-Ghamdi. Security forces raided her home in the Jeddah governorate, arresting her and her son, Adel, without any judicial warrant, and taking them to an unknown location. Later, it became clear that they were in the Jeddah prison. Meanwhile, the government also raided the home of Al-Ghamdi’s brother, Sultan, who lives in the Dammam governorate. He was arrested by security forces wearing plainclothes and claiming that they were planning to undermine state security.

Political activist Abdullah Al-Ghamdi published a statement after the arrests, indicating that the reason for his mother’s arrest was his gift to her of a small amount of money that did not exceed the standard requirements.

Aida is a housewife, Adel is a student, and Sultan is an employee. None of them engages in political activity. The Saudi government prevented Aida, Adel, and Sultan from communicating with family members, informing relatives of the details of their arrests, and contacting lawyers.

Sultan was released on April 20, 2018, and he posted a video on Twitter on April 22, in which he attacked his brother and confirmed that his family was arrested because of the money they received from Abdullah.

Abdullah received information reporting that Sultan was forced to produce the video. Furthermore, the family has no information on Sultan’s whereabouts. There are rumors that his brother is under house arrest, and some activists have demanded on Twitter that the Saudi authorities disclose his whereabouts. On June 28, 2018, the family was permitted monthly visits with Adel and Aida, but they remain deprived of the majority of their legal rights.

The arrest of Al-Ghamdi’s family was accompanied by an official Saudi media campaign charging them, before an investigation or a trial, with terrorism and with plotting to destabilize state security.


Sheikh Hassan Al-Salah

Saudi political activist (born April 10, 1971) living in Iran. He has not visited Saudi Arabia for five years for fear of being arrested for his activist background and the political opinions that he has published in the media and on social media.

The Saudi government is currently pressuring Al-Salah’s family. On December 20, 2017, it arbitrarily arrested his brother, Naji Al-Salah, accusing him of communicating with his brother and supporting his activities. He was tortured and remains in solitary confinement.

In addition, despite her advanced age, Al-Salah’s mother was summoned and accused of communicating with her son. The remaining brothers were threatened with arrest if they communicated with Al-Salah.

Because of his fear of arrest and being handed over to Saudi Arabia based on security agreements, Al-Salah also has not gone to Jordan– where his autistic and developmentally disabled son lives– despite his need to renew his son’s residency. This has pushed his son’s school to threaten to deprive him of schooling and to expel him from the school. According to Al-Salah, the government has attempted to carry out a plan to arrest him in Jordan, whereby the school administration contacted him and requested he come to Jordan to renew his son’s passport to prevent the suspension of his studies. Al-Salah did not go, and he learned afterwards that the Mabahith (Saudi secret police) told his detained brother, prior to the school’s contact, that they would be bringing in his brother within days.

Currently, the documents concerning his son are in the possession of the Saudi embassy in Jordan, and the embassy will not renew the documents unless the father or his representative is present. Al-Salah knows that he will be arrested if he goes to Jordan or the embassy. He has not seen his son for almost six years.


Omar bin Abdulaziz Al-Zahrani

Saudi political activist (born January 4, 1991) living in Canada. He began his studies in Canada as an exchange student in 2009. He left Saudi Arabia for the last time in 2012. Because of his activism that began during his time in Canada, the Saudi government halted financial support for his educational exchange. It became clear that he would be in danger if he returned to Saudi Arabia again and could face arrest, torture, and trial. This pushed him to apply for asylum in 2013, and in February 2015, he was granted the right to political asylum.

Omar is active on social media, where his tweets criticize the policies and violations of the Saudi government, especially against detainees. He has used social media networks to discuss various rights, regularly addressing issues, including, most recently, the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Canada and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Omar has received verbal messages from sources close to the government demanding that he refrain from speaking or face consequences.

On August 22, 2018, Omar posted a video in which he confirmed the arrest of two of his brothers and eight of his friends. In the video, he indicated that the reason for the arrests was his failure to reply to a letter from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, delivered to him weeks before by his brother, Ahmed, and two other men. They came to negotiate with him and convince him to return to Saudi Arabia, guaranteeing that bin Salman would ensure that he would not suffer harm upon his return. Currently, the brothers and friends of Omar bin Abdulaziz remain under arbitrary detention. Omar reported on his Twitter account that his brother Ahmed was tortured by electric shock and his brother Abdul Al-Majid was waterboarded.


Ali Hashim Al-Haji

Saudi political activist (born November 1, 1983) living in Lebanon. He left Saudi Arabia in 2017, after he was summoned to an inquiry before the Specialized Criminal Court, which was established primarily to try those accused of terrorism but also tries activists and opinion-makers. Al-Haji was summoned because of his social media activism and his criticism of government policies and the oppression of its citizens. He continued his activities after he left Saudi Arabia, where he speaks out on social media and conventional media about violations and arrests and demands civil and political rights.

In 2018, Al-Haji’s family, including his wife and five children, visited him in Lebanon. In August 2018, upon their temporary return to Saudi Arabia, they were detained at the Dammam airport for three hours. His wife faced insults, threats, and questioning about her husband and his activities, and she was forced to put her fingerprints on a document of unknown contents. The security forces also proceeded to confiscate all of the family’s passports, and they are currently forbidden to travel.


Ali Al-Dabisi

Saudi human rights defender (born October 17, 1980) living in Germany. He was arbitrarily arrested twice, in 2011 and 2012, during the arbitrary arrest campaigns that took place in Saudi Arabia concurrent with the demonstrations and protests in the country during the events of the Arab Spring.

Al-Dabisi was arrested on May 2, 2011, at one of the checkpoints leading to the city of Safwa, because he had various books in his vehicle. He was placed in solitary confinement and interrogated until he was released on May 4, 2011. In September 2011, he was re-arrested at the same checkpoint, also because of books and papers in his car. He was imprisoned without charges until his release in August 2012. Eight months after his release, the Mabahith summoned him for questioning without explanation and demanded his attendance. This raised fear of his arbitrary re-arrest and subjection to torture or unfair trial, which pushed him to leave Saudi Arabia in April 2013.

In Germany, Al-Dabisi began his rights activism. He founded, along with Saudi citizens, the ESOHR, whose aim is to publicize violations, supply the media with events in the rights situation, and to present reports to the various concerned UN bodies.

In September 2016, the official Saudi Press Agency unexpectedly published a news article that noted that Al-Dabisi had not attended a scheduled court hearing in April 2016. It set another hearing for him to be tried under the law against terrorism and its financing, which is known for being used against activists and human rights advocates. In addition, sources informed Al-Dabisi, in the summer of 2016, that there was a warrant for his arrest in Arab countries on charges of undermining national security.

On August 18, 2017, the minor son of Al-Dabisi’s sister, Mohammed Al-Labad (born February 17, 2001), was arbitrarily arrested at a checkpoint and transported, without charge, to the Awamiya police station. In April 2018, Mohammed’s mother, Ibtisam Al-Dabisi, was summoned by the Mabahith in Qatif, where she was threatened with arrest and told that what she wrote on her Twitter account about her son was considered incitement against the state and an electronic crime that authorized her arrest. During her questioning, Ibtisam was asked about the activities of her brother and told to tell him to stop his activities and return to Saudi Arabia.

In the course of her interrogation, Ibtisam asked the authorities to release her son, and the interrogators replied: How can we release him when his uncle is continuing his activities?

Mohammed was placed in a non-juvenile prison, and the government brought charges against him, which he was forced to sign, that he had participated in demonstrations, repeated slogans against the state, and carried Molotov cocktails.


Offers to return

In addition to targeting their families at home, activists living abroad encounter various methods to eliminate their activities. Many of them receive communications and calls, both direct and indirect, from the government urging them to return to Saudi Arabia in exchange for guarantees that they would not be persecuted or arrested. Among them are the vice-president of the ESOHR, Adel Al-Said, and lawyer and human rights defender, Taha Al-Haji, who was contacted by the Saudi embassy in Berlin and asked to return to Saudi Arabia after he had left to avoid arrest. These practices cause activists to fear the possibility that these are the first steps before escalation against them or the families back home.

The ESOHR believes that the harassment of the families of dissidents, activists, and human rights advocates living abroad is part of the Saudi government’s policies to curb freedoms and independent civil activity.

The ESOHR affirms that these practices violate international law that guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the Declaration On Human Rights Defenders that was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1998, in which Article 12 states: “The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise.”

The ESOHR emphasizes that these violations are retaliatory and are a form of blackmail that aims to stop activists from exercising their legitimate right to freedom of opinion. What is happening to family members of activists is another example of the unprecedented repression that characterizes King Salman’s reign.

The targeting of family members of activists and those close to them – whether by threat, harassment, or arrest – is a practice of intimidation that destroys the feeling of security of those close to activists and adds another black mark to Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights.

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