One year ago this month, the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA) co-founder Mohammad al-Bajadi was discharged from al-Hayer prison after serving a four-year sentence. He spent the next four months in Saudi Arabia’s notorious Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care, an extremist rehabilitation center, despite his lifelong record of non-violent, pro-democracy activism. Released on 7 April 2016, al-Bajadi is one of the only remaining free members of ACPRA. His story is emblematic of Saudi Arabia’s systemic persecution of peaceful activists under the guise of combatting terrorism.
Mohammad al-Bajadi is a businessman, human rights defender, and father of two. Over the course of his activism, authorities arrested al-Bajadi several times for his calls to end torture and arbitrary detention. In 2007, authorities from the Ministry of Interior’s intelligence agency, the Mabahith, detained al-Bajadi after he informed the international media about a sit-in calling for the release of political prisoners. They held him in solitary confinement without charge or trial for four months, only to release him on the condition “that he would not organize any forum or gatherings, nor contact any foreign press.”
In 2009, al-Bajadi and ten other Saudi human rights activists founded ACPRA. Together, they worked to document human rights violations while advocating for significant governing reforms, including the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The government’s crackdown on the organization began with the arrest of al-Bajadi in March 2011. Following a secret trial in which Saudi authorities denied him legal representation, on 12 April 2012, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced al-Bajadi to four years in prison on charges arising from his work with ACPRA. The court found al-Bajadi guilty of participating in the “establishment of an unlicensed organization, harming the image of the state through the media, calling on the families of political detainees to protest and hold sit-ins, contesting the independence of the judiciary, and having banned books in his possession.”
After serving his sentence primarily at al-Hayer prison in Riyadh, authorities transferred al-Bajadi to the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care, where he spent four months before his release in April. Established in 2006, the center rehabilitates religious extremists and terrorist sympathizers through providing ideological counseling and re-education. A 2010 Rand report questions the program’s methodology for being heavy on the “ideology” and light on the “re-education,” while others describe the Center as a “PR tool to burnish the kingdom’s counterterrorism credentials.” The housing of human rights defenders, such as al-Bajadi, in the Center further underscores the program’s and the wider Saudi government’s deep failures in addressing real threats of violent extremism.
Before the Saudi court dissolved ACPRA in 2013, al-Bajadi and his colleagues advocated for principles that religious extremists eschew, including greater political representation and a pluralistic civil society. Yet, Saudi authorities sentenced nearly all of ACPRA’s members on charges of terrorism for their peaceful activities. Authorities released al-Bajadi in April. However, he remains under travel ban and is vulnerable to re-arrest for continued human rights work. If Saudi Arabia does not permit human rights defenders like al-Bajadi to continue their work, Saudi authorities may win short-term battles against their critics, but will lose the broader war on extremism.
Leah Schulz is an Advocacy Fellow at ADHRB.