Saudi Arabia: Two human rights defenders released, while others forcibly disappeared and sentenced to lengthy prison terms

Saudi authorities continue their systematic repressive policies aimed at completely eliminating the human rights movement, including keeping imprisoned human rights defenders who have completed their sentences in prison in order to prevent them from carrying out their peaceful and legitimate human rights work. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) welcomes the news that two members of the Association for Civil and Political Rights in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA) have been released, but calls on the authorities to release all other detained human rights defenders.

Human rights defender Issa Al-Nukhaifi forcibly disappeared

Local reports received by GCHR confirmed that human rights defender Issa Al-Nukhaifi (pictured above left) was transferred on 24 October 2022 from Al-Ha’ir Reformatory Prison in Riyadh to an unknown destination, and there is no information about his current whereabouts. It was hoped that he would be released after he completed his sentence on 18 December 2022.

Thus, it can be said that Al-Nukhaifi is now subjected to enforced disappearance by the Saudi authorities, putting him in the same situation as prominent human rights defender Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, who was also moved to another prison on the same date. They spent their sentences in wing (8A) of the same prison, and together they went on several hunger strikes to demand their rights and to protest against the ill-treatment they were subjected to.

On 28 February 2018, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced Al-Nukhaifi to six years in prison, to be followed by another six years of travel ban after his release, in addition to preventing him from writing or using social media.

Al-Nukhaifi was charged with “insulting” the authorities and inciting public opinion against the rulers, as well as being in contact with suspected opposition figures. He was also accused of demanding the release of members of banned NGOs – namely the Association for Civil and Political Rights in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA). He was charged under the Anti-Cyber Crimes Law in connection with his online activities on social media networks which include his rejection of the war in Yemen, and his support for the hashtag of the Popular Parliament.

Al-Nukhaifi is a community social activist who protested against the government’s policy of displacing families from the Saudi-Yemeni borders for security measures without adequate compensation. On 18 December 2016, the security forces in the Jizan region arrested Al-Nukhaifi after he tweeted on 06 December 2016: “I did not steal trillions, I did not buy a yacht and I did not buy a plane. I do not have a home for my children. I do not have a job after you took my job away and even my payment is late for the rented home so why the summons.”

He was previously released on 06 April 2016 after spending three years and eight months in prison. He was allegedly tortured and placed in solitary confinement after he began a hunger strike to demand justice. He was convicted on charges of defaming the judicial authority, accusing state institutions of failing to perform their duties, participating in sedition by inciting and organising demonstrations, and storing and sending material that would prejudice public order.

Human rights defender Mohammed Al-Rabiah sentenced to 17 more years in prison

In December 2022, the SCC issued a 17-year prison sentence against writer and human rights defender Mohammed Al-Rabiah, after his retrial. He had hoped to be released after completing his initial sentence of four and a half years at the end of September 2022, but the Supreme Court overturned the sentence against him and sent the case back to the SCC.

On 15 May 2018, Al-Rabiah was arrested along with more than a dozen women’s rights activists. After an arbitrary detention of more than three years, he was charged with broad charges that included “striving to destabilise the social fabric and weaken national cohesion and community cohesion,” “communicating with others with the intent of disturbing the security and stability of the nation,” and “writing and publishing a book containing suspicious instructions.” The Public Prosecution demanded a 25-year prison sentence under Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law and Articles 53 and 55 of the Law on Combating and Financing Terrorism Crimes. Electronic flies contributed by threatening him and inciting the charges which were brought against him.

On 21 March 2021, his case was transferred to the SCC, which sentenced him on 20 April 2021 to six years in prison and to a travel ban for a similar period after the completion of his sentence. This was followed by the Court of Appeal reducing the sentence to four and a half years and suspending the execution of the remainder of the initial sentence, which is a year and a half. However, the Supreme Court overturned this sentence in its entirety, and approved the Public Prosecution’s request to retry him.

Credible reports confirmed that he was subjected to torture during the first year of his detention, which included torture with electric shocks, waterboarding, preventing him from sitting or sleeping, hanging him by the feet, and beating him until he lost consciousness. This treatment took place despite the fact that he suffers from many diseases, including a herniated disc, diabetes, and asthma.

His Twitter account has a pinned tweet saying, “Palestine is a centre around which your options in the region and the world are shaped, without its support, it is not possible to build an independent national security strategy, for example.” The day before his arrest, he tweeted, “They hate the victim, and exonerate the perpetrator, just because the victim’s death is annoying and makes a fuss!”

Hunger strikes are a means of protest used by the three human rights defenders, Al-Qahtani, Al-Nukhaifi and Al-Rabiah, calling for their release after they have served their original sentences.

Intervention by UN mechanisms

The mandates of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health have published a detailed communication sent on 30 November 2022 to the authorities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which included many demands such as to “please provide information regarding the legal grounds for the reversal of sentences and the start of new trial jut before the end of the sentence of Mr. Al-Rabiah. The refusal to release him, as well as to release Mr. Al-Nukhaifi and [Dr.] Al-Qahtani at the end of their sentences and the reported lack of information or legal counsel provided to them.”

Two human rights defenders released

On 07 January 2023, human rights defender Dr. Abdulkarim Al-Khodr (pictured at left), one of the founders of the ACPRA, was released after completing his ten-year sentence. Then, on 10 January 2023, human rights defender Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Hamid (pictured at right), another founder of ACPRA, was released after completing his nine-year sentence. The sentences against the two defenders included a travel ban for a period equal to the sentences they had just served.


GCHR calls on the authorities in Saudi Arabia to:

Immediately and unconditionally release Mohammed Al-Rabiah, Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, Issa Al-Nukhaifi, all other members of the ACPRA and all prisoners of conscience;

While they are in custody, abide by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules), and provide proper care to maintain their health, and allow them full access to their families;

Allow prisoners to file complaints for abuse in prison and ensure accountability for those who attack them; and

Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals.

Source: Gulf Center of Human Rights