For their visionary and courageous efforts, guided by universal human rights principles, to reform the totalitarian political system in Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani and Waleed Abu al-Khair are three of the most prominent civil and human rights defenders in the history of Saudi Arabia. They have stood defiant in their pursuit for reforms in a country where the royal family maintains a tightly controlled monopoly of power. Eventually, this struggle led to al-Hamid’s untimely death in prison in 2020.
The three human rights defenders have challenged Saudi Arabia’s totalitarian system through peaceful methods, calling for universal human rights and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. They have also demanded the separation of powers and equality for all, including the abolishment of male guardianship, which deprives women of their most basic rights. As a consequence of their courageous struggle for a more pluralistic and democratic society, the three men were sentenced to between 10 and 15 years’ imprisonment.
While serving an 11-year prison sentence, al-Hamid passed away from an untreated heart condition on April 24, 2020. Al-Qahtani and Abu al-Khair remain in prison to this day, however, they are just as committed to reforming Saudi Arabia as ever before.
Civil and human rights defenders Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, and Waleed Abu al-Khair have peacefully pushed for reforming the totalitarian system in Saudi Arabia. Their courage, vision and inclusive approach to shaping a positive future for their home country have been – and continue to be – a great source of inspiration for many people in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region.
Calling for reforming a totalitarian system
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. The king is the head of state, head of government, supreme commander of the armed forces and head of the Shura Council (the advisory council). State legislation is based on royal decrees, and the royal family dominates almost every aspect of political and economic life in the country. Saudi Arabia has long been recognised as one of the most repressive and dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders, where basic rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, are denied.
Al-Hamid, al-Qahtani and Abu al-Khair have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the promotion of human rights and equality in Saudi Arabia. They have developed local initiatives to reform the totalitarian system from within. Al-Hamid, al-Qahtani, and Abu al-Khair have fervently argued that Islam and human rights are not mutually exclusive. However, their conviction that democratic and human rights values can be incorporated into Islamic culture and institutions has been seen as a threat by the Saudi regime and Wahhabi clerics, who claim to have a monopoly on religious doctrine in the country.
Civil society comes alive
Abdullah al-Hamid, 1950-2020, was a poet and professor of contemporary Arabic literature. He emerged as a powerful voice for reforming Saudi Arabia, writing several books on the topic. His activism stretched over more than 25 years. In 1993, he co-founded the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, a political advocacy group whose stated objectives included the release of political detainees and accountability for abuses by members of the ruling family.
Mohammad al-Qahtani, born in 1965, is one of the leading proponents of human rights and political reforms in Saudi Arabia. In 2008, he conducted a hunger strike to protest the imprisonment of 11 activists without a fair or public trial. In 2011, he openly supported public demonstrations by women calling for the release, or at least the fair trial, of prisoners arrested in the campaign against terrorism.
Given the state repression, establishing independent human rights organisations within Saudi Arabia has been extremely challenging. However, in 2009, al-Hamid and al-Qahtani along with nine fellow activists created the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), becoming one of the few independent civil society organisations inside the country. The organisation aimed to promote human rights in Saudi Arabia. They also called for political reforms, an elected parliament, and independent legal institutions that would protect citizens’ rights and enforce government accountability. One of the organisation's key functions was to monitor and document human rights abuses, drawing the ire of the Saudi authorities for highlighting torture in prisons and mass arrests of protesters. Saudi authorities promptly shut down the organisation, which remains banned in the country.
Waleed Abu al-Khair, born in 1979, is a lawyer, who has been calling on the Saudi regime to enact political reforms towards a constitutional monarchy since 2007. His activism in support of a fairer society has included opening up his own home as a place for people and youth, in particular, to meet and discuss social, political and religious topics.
Abu al-Khair is best known for having defended the famous activist and blogger Raif Badawi in court during his trial on blasphemy charges. Abu al-Khair has been a vocal critic of the Saudi regime. A trusted source of information, he has lectured internationally about human rights in the Gulf state and has written hundreds of articles for Arabic and international outlets, such as The Washington Post and the BBC. Abu al-Khair is the founder of Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA), a human rights organisation established in 2008. After unsuccessfully attempting to register the organisation inside the country, he registered the organisation with the Canadian Ministry of Labour in 2012, making it the first Saudi human rights organisation to be licensed abroad.
The price of speaking truth to power in Saudi Arabia
Al-Hamid, al-Qahtani, Abu al-Khair and their families have suffered retaliation for promoting freedom and equality under a regime that has no respect for either.Al-Hamid paid the ultimate price for his convictions. While serving an 11-year prison sentence, he was hospitalised in January 2020 and was recommended to urgently undergo heart surgery. However, he was repeatedly denied crucial medical care, leading to the deterioration of his condition. He passed away on April 24, 2020, causing an international outcry over the cruelty of Saudi authorities.
During his life, al-Hamid faced persecution and imprisonment several times for his calls to establish a constitutional monarchy in the country. He was arrested six times between 1993 and 2008. In 2005, he was sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment for several charges, including “showing dissent and disobeying the ruler.” He was ultimately released, along with others, after a royal pardon in August 2005. This was followed in 2008 by another sentence, for which he served 4 months in prison. This sentence was for supposed “incitement to protest,” after he had supported a group of families from the Shiite minority in their protest against the imprisonment of their relatives without charges.
After its creation in 2009, ACPRA’s leaders and founders were systematically targeted by the authorities, who handed down lengthy prison terms for providing an alternative narrative to that offered by the Saudi regime. In March 2013, al-Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison, while in the same trial, al-Hamid was handed down a 5-year sentence, plus another 6 years from a previous sentence for which he had been pardoned by the King. Al-Hamid and al-Qahtani were convicted by the Specialised Criminal Court, which had been created to try terrorists but was increasingly used against human rights activists. Their charges included “breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler,” “undermining unity,” “questioning the integrity of officials,” “seeking to disrupt security,” and “inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations.” Travel bans that equalled the lengths of their prison sentences were also imposed on them after their release day.
Abu al-Khair, who stood trial a year later, became the first activist to be tried under the 2014 “Terrorism Law.” On July 6, 2014, Abu al-Khair was sentenced to 15 years in prison, a 15-year travel ban and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (40,000 Euros). His charges included “striving to overthrow the state and the authority of the King,” “assembling international organisations against the Kingdom,” and “creating and supervising an unlicensed organisation” (meaning MHRSA).
Abu al-Khair has since reported that he had suffered abuse during his incarceration, including being denied food and adequate medical treatment, beatings, solitary confinement and sleep deprivation. On June 7, 2016, he started a hunger strike to protest his conditions and treatment in prison. His strike lasted five days and resulted in him being granted some concessions from the prison administration.
The three activists’ convictions have been roundly condemned by international organisations and institutions, including the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which called their imprisonment “a violation of international human rights standards.”
A source of inspiration
Al-Hamid, al-Qahtani and Abu al-Khair have each greatly contributed to a domestic, grassroots approach to human rights, demonstrating the possibility of a Saudi solution to the realisation of universal human rights in the country. They have stood defiant in their pursuit for human rights in a country where activists’ lives are often at risk. Their personal sacrifice and years of dedication have been a source of inspiration and hope that genuine change can be brought to Saudi Arabia.