The Government of Saudi Arabia is pressuring the Government of Qatar to extradite Saudi activist Mohammed Abdullah al-Otaibi from Qatar, where he is seeking political asylum, back to Saudi Arabia. If Qatar gives into the Saudi government’s pressure, al-Otaibi is at risk of being arbitrarily detained and sentenced to prison in an unfair trial, if not subject to ill-treatment, due solely to his human rights work. Even though al-Otaibi is currently in Qatar, his next hearing is scheduled in Saudi Arabia for Tuesday 25 April.
Mohammed Abdullah al-Otaibi is a human rights defender and co-founder along with Abdullah al-Atawi, Abdullah Badrani, and Mohammed ‘Ayedh al-Otaibi of the Union for Human Rights (UHR), a short-lived human rights organization that was established in April 2013 but that never received a license from the government to operate. Human rights organizations in Saudi Arabia have consistently faced persecution because the government has routinely refused to grant them operating licenses. One month after al-Otaibi and his partners founded UHR, the Riyadh public prosecutor summoned him and the other co-founders for questioning. During the interrogation session, investigators accused them of creating an illegal organization and publishing false information.
In March 2014, authorities again summoned al-Otaibi and al-Attawi for further interrogation in which they raised similar charges. Pressured by authorities, both pledged to stop issuing statements and participating in television interviews. Despite this, Saudi officials brought several charges against al-Otaibi relating to his human rights work. One of his charges is for violating Article 6 of the Cybercrime Law, the penalty for which is up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 3 million riyals (about $80,000). In late 2016, the public prosecution accused al-Otaibi and al-Attawi of resuming their activism and on 8 December 2016, Saudi authorities referred al-Otaibi’s case to Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court, the kingdom’s counter-terror court that is also frequently used to prosecute peaceful dissidents. This most recent case against al-Otaibi comes more than two years after officials first interrogated him about his activism in 2013.
On 30 March 2017, one month after the travel ban from al-Otaibi’s previous conviction was lifted—he was imprisoned along with 21 others in 2009 for taking part in, or attempting to hold, protests against Israel’s military action in Gaza—he fled to Qatar in an attempt to claim political asylum. He traveled on his Saudi national identification card because authorities had confiscated his passport when they arrested him in 2009. According to Article 58 of the Qatari constitution and under Article 28 of the Arab Charter for Human Rights, the Qatari government is prohibited from extraditing a political refugee.
Despite several laws nominally prohibiting Qatar from extraditing al-Otaibi, Saudi Arabia is pressuring the Qatari government to hand him over to face trial. Al-Otaibi’s next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday 25 April.
The pressure being exerted on Qatar by Saudi Arabia is alarming because of the Saudi government’s treatment of human rights defenders. Many have been subject to arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, abuse, and long prison sentences due to their human rights work and activism. Saudi courts have convicted many peaceful dissidents and activists since 2011. Among the human rights defenders and activists currently in prison are members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), Essam Koshak, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and Raif Badawi. In addition to facing prison, human rights defenders and activists in Saudi Arabia sometimes face capital punishment. Authorities have sentenced Yusuf al-Mushaikhass and Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher to death after torturing them for their participation in peaceful protests. The Saudi government’s pressure on Qatar over al-Otaibi is also alarming because of the recent forced repatriation of Dina Ali Lasloom from the Philippines on 14 April.
The Saudi government has systematically suppressed human rights and political organizations and imprisoned their members, but the pressure it is applying to Qatar to return a peaceful dissident for almost certain prosecution and potential abuse represents an alarming new trend. The Qatari government should uphold its legal obligations to protect al-Otaibi. It should also assist his efforts to apply for asylum with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Tyler Pry is an Advocacy Associate at ADHRB