Home » Reports » The cases of Sheikh al-Habib and minor Murtaja Qureiris: UN experts believe that Saudi practices may promote gross violations of human rights

The cases of Sheikh al-Habib and minor Murtaja Qureiris: UN experts believe that Saudi practices may promote gross violations of human rights

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On 11 May 2020, UN Special Rapporteurssent a letter to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regarding the arrest and ill treatment of Sheikh Mohammed Hassan al-Habib and Murtaja Qureiris.

The letter was signed by the Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights advocates; the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

Sheikh Hassan al-Habib

The Special Rapporteurs explain that Sheikh al-Habib (age 56) is a cleric living in Safwa City and known for his human rights advocacy. They note that Sheikh al-Habib was accused of insulting religious leaders and calling for sectarianism based on a sermon he gave criticizing discrimination against the Shi’a minority. On 17 July 2015, after a series of attacks on Shi’a and Husayniya mosques, Sheikh al-Habib gave a sermon criticizing the country’s educational curriculum, saying that it includes discriminatory statements against the Shi’a. On 8 July 2016, while traveling to Kuwait, he was arrested without a warrant by customs at the Khafji border crossing, and on 21 July 2016, members of the Saudi intelligence services searched his housewithout warrant and confiscated his and his family’s personal belongings, including laptops and mobile phones.

Sheikh al-Habib was kept in isolation from the outside world and in solitary confinement. He suffered torture and other degrading treatment for four months. He was prevented from contacting his family and lawyer, and, although he experienced severe health problems as a result of torture, he received no medical treatment. On 27 October 2016, he was brought before the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, where, on 10 July 2017, he was acquitted based on a lack of evidence. However, on 4 January 2018, the preliminary court’s decision was overturned on appeal, and he was sentenced under the Counter-Terrorism Law to seven years in prison on charges of inciting sectarianism and sedition.

On 30 April 2018, Sheikh al-Habib was further accused of supporting the protests in Qatif Governorate, which the Saudi government claimed threatened the social fabric and national unity. He was also accused of attempting to leave the country for Kuwait and violating the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. On 26 August 2019, the Specialized Criminal Court found him guilty of this charge. It is reported that despite the challenges he faced in communicating with his client, al-Habib’s lawyer filed a cassation request on 19 September 2019, and a formal objection before the Supreme Court on 12 January 2020.

In March 2020, the court upheld the Specialized Criminal Court’s original ruling, and al-Habib remains confined in the Mabahith Prison in Dammam. According to the letter, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, prison visits have been suspended until further notice, and al-Habib is unable to access appropriate medical care for his health condition.

Murtaja Qureiris

The letter notes that Murtaja Qureiris is a nineteen-year-old student from Qatif. At the age of ten, he participated in protests in Qatif that took place in 2011 and 2012, amid the Arab Spring and demands for human rights. His case was thesubject of an opinion by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its 77th session in November 2016, where the group concluded that he was being arbitrarily detained and called for his immediate release and compensation.

On 20 September 2014, the border police arrested him without a warrant on the King Fahd causeway while he was traveling to Bahrain with his family. He was placed in the juvenile detention center in Dammam, where he was reportedly held in solitary confinement for a month and subjected to frequent interrogation without the presence of a lawyer or legal guardian.

The Public Prosecutor sought the death penalty against Qureiris; however, on 16 June 2019, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. His appeal has been suspended due to COVID-19, and he is currently in the Mabahith Prison in Dammam, where he is allowed one family visit per month.

UN experts have expressed their grave concerns about the persecution and continued detention of Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib and Murtaja Qureiris for their human rights advocacy and activities, as well as their concern about Saudi Arabia’s use of the Counter-Terrorism Law against the two.

The letter highlighted the criminalization of al-Habib and Qureiris for exercising their right to expression and opinion and their criticism of government policies, as well as the use of torture and ill treatment against them with the goal of extracting confessions from them. The Special Rapporteurs noted thatthese reports, if true, highlight a number of troubling trends in the behavior of security and judicial authorities which amount to serious violations of human rights.

In addition, the letter asked the Saudi government to provide any additional information regarding the legal basis for arresting, convicting, and detaining al-Habib and Qureiris, and how this is consistent with international human rights principles and standards, especially regarding freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, religion or belief, and the rights of children.

Furthermore, the Special Rapporteurs requested information about whether the claims of torture or other ill treatment, including forced signing of confessions, have been investigated as required under the Convention Against Torture, to which Saudi Arabia is a party.

The Special Rapporteurs also asked for details on the current physical and mental well-being of Sheikh al-Habib and Qureiris, as well as the measures taken to ensure their access to appropriate medical care. They asked for an explanation of how government legislation and policies to combat terrorism guarantee the protection of all human rights, as well as an explanation of the reasons why the Saudi government has failed, to date, to implement the opinion of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention which found the detention of Qureiris arbitrary.

ESOHR emphasizes its concern for the well-being of detainees in Saudi Arabia. This issue has been compounded by the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the Saudi government’s failure to take any serious steps to lessen prison overcrowding, such as releasing children and prisoners of conscience.

ESOHR stresses that the Saudi government’s lack of response to the opinion of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in the case of Murtaja Qureiris reflects its general tendency in dealing with UN mechanisms. While awaiting the Saudi government’s response to the letter which was receivedon 8 July 2020, given previous Saudi responses to such letters, ESOHR does not anticipate that the reply will contain accurate information but rather attempts to mislead and falsify reality. ESOHR also notes that the Saudi government’s handling of casesraised by UN bodies does not show serious attempts to address violations, whether by opening files or investigating those responsible for violations.

 

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