Never Talk Back To A Saudi Judge
By Jess HillSeptember 26, 2012
Two of Saudi Arabia’s most outspoken civil rights activists are being tried for crimes against the state. Based on testimonies from people inside the courtroom, this is an account of their extraordinary trial.
It was the first day of September, and inside the courtroom it was stiflingly hot.
On the tiled floor sat 65-year-old civil rights activist Abdullah al-Hamid. Waiting for his turn to defend himself, he fanned himself with the document detailing his alleged crimes against the state.
In front of the judge sat 46-year-old Mohammad al-Qahtani, an American-educated economics professor who, together with al-Hamid, co-founded the Saudi Political and Civil Rights Association (ACPRA) in 2009.
In a kingdom where human rights groups are virtually non-existent, ACPRA is a rare — and bold — exception. It reports on human rights violations to international monitors such as the United Nations, and helps the families of prisoners detained without charge to file cases against the Ministry of Interior. Since its establishment in mid-October 2009, ACPRA has taken the lead in defending prisoners in Saudi Arabia "because there is no independent agency that can defend them," says al-Qahtani. ACPRA isn't picky about who it assists; its activists insist that both dissidents and militant suspects deserve a fair trial.
But now they're the ones on trial, and both al-Qahtani and al-Hamid face a litany of charges. These include breaking allegiance to the ruler, describing Saudi Arabia as a police state, accusing the judiciary of allowing torture, and turning international organisations against the Kingdom. If convicted, the two men could spend several years in prison and face a large fine. Al-Qahtani believes a conviction is likely; in April this year, ACPRA co-founder Mohammed al-Bajadi was jailed for four years on similar charges.
"The trial of Mohammad al-Qahtani is just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the Kingdom's human rights activists," wrote Philip Luther, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program, in a statement in June.
On September 5, Amnesty sent out an urgent action notice, stating that the case against both men "appears to be based solely on their legitimate work to defend human rights in Saudi Arabia and their criticism of the authorities".
Political trials don't usually draw a crowd in Saudi Arabia, but this day was an exception. Al-Hamid and al-Qahtani are considered two of the most important activists in the Kingdom, and on this day they were scheduled to defend themselves in front of the court. The tiny courtroom in Riyadh's Specialised Criminal Court, established in 2008 to deal with suspected terrorists, was crammed with over 50 activists, prominent intellectuals and relatives of prisoners the two men had defended.
The trials of Saudi human rights activists are frequently held in private, so gaining access to the courtroom was "a matter of luck", says Iman al-Qahtani (no relation), a female journalist and activist who witnessed the hearing. Security was lax, she says, and the judge was simply overwhelmed by the number of people who had shown up. Smartphones in hand, the observers tweeted out proceedings, to many more Saudis monitoring the trial online.
"I swear I did not believe the huge interaction with the trial via Twitter. It was huge," says Iman.
Saudi Arabia is the fastest growing market for Twitter; in June alone, users grew by 3,000 per cent. "People's awareness has changed a lot after the Arab Spring," says Iman. "[And] everyone knew this was a historic moment."
Al-Qahtani began his defence with a ringing condemnation of the state, accusing it of multiple human- and civil-rights violations. "The corrupt are those who have brought our development to a halt!" he exclaimed, responding to charges that his activism was holding Saudi Arabia back.
"We must stop leading the youth into the flames of proxy wars, and then throwing them into jail cells," Qahtani continued, prompting "forced yawns" from the judge.
Al-Qahtani asserted that the charges were raised against him out of malicious intent, and asked that the testimonies of people who had suffered human rights violations at the hands of the state be admitted to the court, to prove that ACPRA's criticisms were legitimate.
"How could you prove that the charges against you were of malicious intent?" asked the judge, ignoring al-Qahtani's request. He then dismissed his defense as "insufficient", and requested a revised version to be delivered at nine o'clock the next morning.
The judge beckoned Abdullah al-Hamid to come forward. Covered in sweat, he approached the bench, and began his defence.
SPEAKING LATER TO THE GLOBAL MAIL, al-Qahtani explained why he had raised the issue of young people going from "proxy wars" to prison cells.
The abuse and mistreatment of political prisoners and jihadi war veterans, many of whom the Saudi regime encouraged to fight abroad, is one of ACPRA's key grievances against the Kingdom.
In the late '70s and '80s, the regime recruited tens of thousands of young Saudis to fight in the war against the Russians in Afghanistan. They joined forces with the local Afghan fighters, or mujahideen, who would later become the Taliban. However, by the time the war ended, these men had become hardened warriors, and the Saudi regime didn't want them back. "The regime decided to abandon Saudis in Afghanistan," says al-Qahtani, "because they were well-trained warriors who could bring home challenges to the precarious Saudi regime."
Many of the fighters who did return to the Kingdom were "thrown in prison, tortured, and exposed to all kinds of ill treatments," he says. "Some of them managed to escape back to Afghanistan, where they became international fugitives."
Many young Saudi men who were born around 1979, just as the first Saudis were arriving in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, would go on to become the next generation of jihadists in wars in Bosnia in the '90s and Chechnya in 2000. Again, support for these militant jihads came from the regime and from senior religious figures, who framed the fight in pan-Islamic terms of protecting the broader Muslim community. "It wasn't surprising to see that 15 out of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudis," says al-Qahtani. At least eight of the hijackers were veterans from Bosnia and Chechnya, including a few who, en route to Chechnya, had been diverted to Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
In 2003, the very people the Saudi regime had encouraged to fight in foreign wars struck back against them. Waging war on the Western presence in the Kingdom, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula executed a series of attacks on Saudi soil, killing dozens and injuring hundreds more. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) led a countrywide crackdown, sweeping up anyone with perceived links to terrorism, including hundreds of veterans from foreign jihad fronts. (Seeing the threat caused by this militarisation, the Saudi regime quickly discouraged its citizens from joining the insurgency in Iraq, and has deemed it illegal for Saudis to join the fight in Syria.)
"Most of the arrests were based on unsubstantiated suspicions," says Qahtani. "Moreover, the Saudi MOI used the global war on terror to crackdown on peaceful activists, because it was easy to get away with arbitrarily detaining tens of thousands of suspects. By doing so, the Saudi regime was able to become a 'strategic partner' in the global war on terror." Under the new Saudi counter-terror laws, thousands of political activists, bloggers, lawyers, religious scholars, human-rights activists, reformists and protesters have been jailed and/or restricted from travel. Amnesty International has documented this in detail ("Saudi Arabia: Repression in the name of security", December 2011).
Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 9,000 have been detained; the Islamic Human Rights Commission counts triple that number, based on reports that the Kingdom's political prisons, with a capacity of 10,000, are actually crammed to three times their capacity. "This is exceptionally high," it says, "considering the country's total population stands at around 27 million, of whom only around 18 million are Saudi nationals."
"Most of these detainees are neither officially charged nor taken to court," says al Qahtani. "The real question is who are these people? And why are they in prison?"
The Saudi regime says there are no political prisoners being held in the Kingdom, and that it has tried 5,080 out of nearly 5,700 people it has arrested on security charges since 2003.
But critics and relatives of the detained say these trials are a sham. At a demonstration earlier this month outside the prosecutor's office in Riyadh, one protester told Reuters that the trial of his brother — a veteran of the Afghan war — had been held in secret, and his brother had been denied the right to choose his own lawyer. "It's been over a year and we still don't have the result of the trial," he said. "In my opinion this trial is nothing but a show."
IN A KINGDOM THAT HAS never held a national election and derives its rule of law exclusively from the Quran and the Sunnah (the sayings and deeds of the Prophet), senior activist Abdullah al-Hamid is a revolutionary. He has persistently campaigned for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia, and spent much of his life in and out of prison; in 2005 he was sentenced to seven years in jail for calling for political reform, but was pardoned later in the year by the newly crowned King Abdullah. He was sent to prison again in 2008, when he served a four-month sentence for supporting a peaceful women's demonstration calling for the release or fair trial of their relatives.
Standing in front of another judge in yet another courtroom, the 65-year-old activist was incensed. "We know the charges were raised against us with malicious intent because we filed a complaint against the Minister of Interior himself," he began. "It would've been more transparent of him to have filed these charges against us under his own name, rather than under the guise of governmental institutions."
Al-Hamid then turned his ire on the judge. "You are both prosecutor and judge," he said. "You say peaceful political protest is only legitimate with permission of the ruler, so how can you tell me that you are an independent judge if you still acknowledge the concept of a supreme ruler? And if this were an independent court, why was it silent when citizens were illegally arrested and tortured by that same supreme ruler who now wants to silence ACPRA for documenting such violations?
"You cannot stop rights activists," al-Hamid continued. "They are like weeds: when you pull out a few, more grow back stronger and thicker. In fact, we are in the process of publishing another document titled, 'A thousand testimonies of human rights violations', and it will be completed and released to the public regardless of whether we personally are detained or not."
"Don't underestimate the youth," al-Hamid warned, "there are many ready to promote justice. And the government cannot detain them all."
"Why don't you just retire to a mosque in your old age?" the judge asked dismissively.
"And give up the greatest form of jihad — speaking a just word before a tyrant?" al-Hamid shot back. "If the judiciary is not independent," he continued, "it will only function as a symbol of oppression... A just judicial system is the true basis of development and stability, and the mark of a civilised state."
The judge interrupted al-Hamid's testimony, cautioning that he was holding back out of respect for the activist's old age. He ordered al-Hamid to afford him the respect a judge deserves, to which the activist replied that he had no legitimacy worthy of his respect.
At this hearing the judge declared that witnesses would be banned from all future hearings. "You are just trying to intimidate us!" al-Hamid exclaimed. "Why don't you keep our future sessions open to the public and allow pictures to be taken? A secret trial cannot be fair; justice will not be reached in this case. A political defendant is only protected as much as he is publically seen. Holding our sessions secretly is a violation of our rights."
The judge paid little heed to al-Hamid's protests, and declared that his testimony, like that of his co-defendant, was insufficient. "Don't think that your taunting words affected me at all," he added.
The court was adjourned.
ONE WEEK LATER, AT THE NEXT HEARING, the judge insisted that all future sessions would be held in private. After their protests fell on deaf ears, al-Hamid and al-Qahtani refused to acknowledge the court, and walked out. The next time they hear from the court will be when it delivers its verdict.
"Unfortunately in Saudi Arabia, human rights and political activists have very limited choices," al-Qahtani told The Global Mail. "They boil down to either keeping your mouth shut and avoiding prison, or opening your mouth and getting thrown in jail.
"Since becoming openly active four years ago, I have taken into account the likelihood of losing my job, going to prison, and being banned from travelling abroad. All the activities I have done over the past four years are worth going to prison for, and I have no regrets whatsoever. I can't be silent in the face of people being deprived of their fundamental rights."
Al-Qahtani says the support he has received, both from his wife and from some of the general public, has been tremendous. "My colleague and I receive daily sympathetic phone calls from complete strangers," he says.
In the meantime, he awaits the results of his trial, and continues his work. He's not afraid of going to jail, he says. "It's just another day at the office."
Read more on Saudi Arabia from our Middle East correspondent, Jess Hill, including the growing groundswell against the ruling royal family, the Saudi roots of the recent Islamic unrest, and what happens when a women drives a car in the kingdom – the last place in the world were women are forbidden from getting behind the wheel.