29 January 2018 – Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced two prominent human rights defenders, Mohammed Abdullah al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi, to 14 and seven years in prison respectively. The SCC found them guilty on a number of spurious free expression- and free association-related crimes, including “participating in setting up an organization and announcing it before getting authorization,” “dividing national unity,” and “publishing information about their interrogations.” Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) strongly condemns their sentencing and calls on Saudi Arabia to immediately release al-Otaibi and al-Attawi and drop all charges against them.

Mohammed al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi are two of the four founders, along with Abdullah Badrani and Mohammed ‘Ayedh al-Otaibi, of the Union for Human Rights. Union for Human Rights was a short-lived human rights organization that was established in April 2013 but that never received a license from the government to operate. After establishing the organization, al-Otaibi and al-Attawi were repeatedly summoned for interrogation by the public prosecutor over their human rights work, in particular statements they published and interviews they gave. Officials also brought several charges against al-Otaibi related to his human rights work, including under Article 6 of the Cybercrime Law, which criminalizes “producing, preparing, transmitting, or storing material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals and privacy, through the information network or computers.”

In December 2016, the public prosecution referred al-Otaibi’s case to Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court, the kingdom’s national security court system set up to try terrorism cases, but which has been used to prosecute peaceful activists. In late March 2017, after a travel ban for a previous case was lifted, al-Otaibi fled to Qatar to escape prosecution, en route to attempting to claim political asylum in Norway. In May 2017, in violation of several legal provisions against refoulement – the forcible return of asylum seekers or refugees to a country where they are liable to persecution – Qatar extradited al-Otaibi to Saudi Arabia. Since his forced return to Saudi Arabia, al-Otaibi has been held in custody.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB: “The sentencing of Mohammed al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi to lengthy prison sentences on free expression- and free association-charges demonstrates Saudi Arabia’s continuing commitment to completely suppress all forms of independent civil society and imprison all human rights defenders and activists in an effort to silence all dissent. Their sentencing contradicts international human rights norms and standards. The international community must make it clear to Saudi Arabia both publicly and privately that Mohammed al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi should be released and all charges against them dropped.”

Saudi Arabia has long used restrictive legislation to close civil society and human rights organizations and prosecute activists and human rights defenders, including the Cybercrime Law, the 2013 and 2017 Counter-terror Laws, and the Law on Associations. Saudi Arabia must reform these laws and bring them into compliance with international standards and lift restrictions on free expression and free assembly and association. ADHRB calls on Saudi Arabia to immediately and unconditionally release Mohammed al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi and all other prisoners of conscience who have been unfairly sentenced because of their activism.