Urgent Appeal: Bulgaria Must Halt Deportation of Saudi Human Rights Activist

The story of Abdulrahman al-Khalidi has recently caught the media’s attention, along with campaigns requesting his release. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Article 19 promptly warned Bulgarian authorities of the risk the activist would face if deported to Saudi Arabia.  This case has already highlighted negligence by Sofia authorities, violating the human rights of the Saudi citizen by putting him under administrative detention. Taking into account this violation, there exists a significant risk that Bulgaria would accept to deport him to Saudi Arabia, likely resulting in more violations, including unfair trials and torture.

Al-Khalidi has been a human rights activist for more than ten years, expressing his dissent against the treatment of prisoners in Saudi Arabia. Due to the Arab Kingdom’s repression, he decided to leave the country in 2013. Initially, he spent a period of exile in Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, and in 2021, he entered the European Union (EU).On 16 November 2021, the activist applied for asylum in Bulgaria, expressing the risks of human rights violations if he was returned to Saudi Arabia. The ‘’Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees’’ refused his application, stating that no risk of persecution exists in the Arab state in light of the measures taken to improve democracy. Al-Khalidi challenged this pronouncement, appealing to the Administrative Supreme Court, which sent the case back to lower courts. Nonetheless, on 7 February 2024, after his asylum state was rejected, the Bulgarian National Security Agency issued a deportation order. Enforcing this order would put under serious risk the life of the Saudi activist in light of other cases in which Saudi Arabia persecuted their citizens abroad.

Already in 2016, ADHRB, with its INTERPOL Deletion Request Programme, removed a wrongful requestion of deportation for an individual from Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is famous for enforcing transnational repression against its citizens, with the most famous case being the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Other cases are those of Dina Ali Lasloom, who attempted to flee her family to Australia due to the abuses of her husband. In that case, she was stopped by security officers and carried away in a hotel with duct tape in her mouth. Eventually, she was deported to Saudi Arabia, where she was put in a detention facility for women under 30. Finally, also Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was persecuted by the Saudi government at the request of her abusive father and brother.

Considering these circumstances, Bulgaria must adhere to its commitments under international, EU and domestic law to respect the principle of non-refoulement. In particular, as expressed by the Special Rapporteur on torture, Mary Lawlor, not respecting the principle in the context of such a repressive country like Saudi Arabia can put the life of Al-Khalidi under serious threat. Furthermore, the principle of non-refoulment is a core element in international human rights law that some scholars address as jus cogens. To conclude, these cases highlight the need for more severe countermeasures against transnational repression, representing a threat to human rights, with particular attention on misusing the red notices and diffusions of INTERPOL, a channel too often used by autocratic states.