UN Special Procedures Publishes Allegation Letter to Saudi Arabia on Illegal Surveillance

On 5 July 2019, the United Nations (UN) Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises; Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy published an allegation letter to the Government of Saudi Arabia citing concern for Omar Abdulaziz Alzahrani, who is allegedly facing harassment and intimidation in reprisal for his work defending human rights and his criticism of the Saudi government.

Mr. Alzahrani, a prominent Saudi human rights activist, traveled to Canada in 2009 to pursue his education. While in Canada, he became increasingly active on social media, criticizing the Government of Saudi Arabia and highlighting its poor human rights record. In 2013, Mr. Alzahrani was requested by the Saudi government to stop his activities, but he refused to cease his online activism. As a result, the Government of Saudi Arabia revoked his sponsorship to study in Canada and requested he immediately return to the kingdom. Instead, Mr. Alzahrani applied for and was granted political asylum in Canada in 2014.

Four years later, in May 2018, two Saudi officials visited Mr. Alzahrani in Canada and invited him to return to Saudi Arabia to assist the government in their efforts to move toward social and political reform, which Mr. Alzahrani refused.

One month later on 23 June 2018, Mr. Alzahrani received a text message with a link referring to an online purchase he made a few hours before. However, when Mr. Alzahrani clicked on the link it caused his phone to download a spyware application from Pegasus. The application is designed to take over all aspects of the iPhone, while simultaneously operating like a “ghost,” leaving no indication one’s phone is compromised. In August 2018, Citizen Lab, an organization specializing in monitoring surveillance against human rights defenders, contacted Mr. Alzahrani and informed him that his phone was infected.

Mr. Alzahrani regularly communicated with Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed at the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul in October 2018, to discuss common journalistic activities. Because Pegasus gave the Government of Saudi Arabia access to Mr. Alzahrani’s phone, they may have surveyed communication between the two activists.

Following the UN Special Procedures allegation letter to the Saudi Arabian Government, Mr. Alzahrani tweeted on 22 August 2018 that his brothers were arrested in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as a direct result of his political commentary on the ongoing dispute between Canada and the Gulf State. Mr. Alzahrani said, “The authorities asked to stop or they are going to arrest them. But I decided not to stop.”

These alleged actions by the Saudi Government, including illegal surveillance, harassment, and intimidation against Mr. Alzahrani in order to dissuade him from his activism, are serious cause for concern. These actions violate Article 12 and Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which “guarantee the rights to not be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with one’s family or home and to freedom of opinion and expression.”

The UN Special Rapporteurs call on Saudi Arabia to provide detailed information on any investigation that has been made into allegations of surveillance, intimidation, and harassment against Mr. Alzahrani. Also, they urge Saudi Arabia to indicate government actions taken to guarantee rights to privacy and to freedom of expression of Saudi Arabian journalists, human rights defenders, and activists.

At the time of writing, Saudi Arabia has not yet responded to the letter.

Alisha Parikh is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB