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Muzzling dissent: Saudi Arabia’s efforts to choke civil society

Amnesty, 9 Oct. 2014:

Peaceful human rights activists have been routinely harassed, rounded up like criminals and often ill-treated in detention as the Saudi Arabian authorities go to extreme lengths to hound critics into silent submission, said Amnesty International in a campaign briefing published today.

Saudi Arabia’s ACPRA: How the Kingdom silences its human rights activists profiles 11 members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) – one of the country’s few independent human rights organizations – who have been jailed or are on trial facing imprisonment, in connection with their human rights work over the past three years.

“The Saudi Arabian authorities have consolidated their iron grip on power through a systematic and ruthless campaign of persecution against peaceful activists in a bid to suppress any criticism of the state in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

The Saudi Arabian authorities have targeted the founding members of ACPRA one by one, in a relentless effort to dismantle the organization and silence its members, as part of a broader crackdown on independent activism and freedom of expression since 2011. Those targeted include prominent activists Dr Abdullah al-Hamid and Dr Mohammad al-Qahtani.

“Saudi Arabia’s authorities have sought to wipe out all trace of ACPRA, just as they have sought to stamp out all critical voices demanding peaceful reform,” said Said Boumedouha.

“The convictions of all ACPRA activists in detention should be quashed and they must be released immediately and unconditionally. Any outstanding charges against other ACPRA members must be dropped.”

Two of the group’s members have been detained without trial, three are awaiting re-trial, three are serving prison terms of up to 15 years and three are free pending the outcome of their trials.

Since it was founded in 2009, ACPRA had been one of the few voices that dared to speak out about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. As a result, its members have been prosecuted on charges such as “breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler”, “inciting public opinion against the authorities”, or similarly vaguely worded charges that have been collated under recent anti-terrorism legislation that effectively criminalizes all forms of peaceful dissent.

Saudi Arabia has long evaded effective international scrutiny for its dire human rights record. It remains one of the USA’s long-standing allies in the “war on terror” including the recent air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) armed group in Iraq and Syria.

“Saudi Arabia’s allies must show that international human rights standards apply equally to all. Without international condemnation and concrete pressure on the authorities, Saudi Arabia will continue to flagrantly violate the most basic human rights principles unchecked,” said Said Boumedouha.

Amnesty International’s campaign briefing also documents the inhuman treatment inflicted on members of ACPRA, some of whom have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment while in detention. Others were held incommunicado for periods ranging from a few days to several months before being brought to trial.

ACPRA member Saleh al-Ashwan was arrested in July 2012 on his way home from early morning prayers. He was kept in incommunicado detention for two months, interrogated in the absence of a lawyer. He was also reportedly tortured, beaten and stripped and suspended by his limbs from the ceiling of an interrogation room.  Another ACPRA member, Sheikh Suliaman al–Rashudi, who was 76 at the time, was detained incommunicado and in solitary confinement for two months before being allowed to have any contact with his family.

At least four ACPRA prisoners have gone on hunger strike to protest their treatment and poor detention conditions. ACPRA member Mohammed al-Bajadi was force-fed intravenously after going on hunger strike several times.

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