Home » Reports » UN letter calls on Saudi Arabia to explain circumstances of al-Hamid’s death and to release detained human rights advocates

UN letter calls on Saudi Arabia to explain circumstances of al-Hamid’s death and to release detained human rights advocates

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Special rapporteurs at the United Nations have expressed their concern that the measures taken by the Saudi government to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus are not extensive enough to protect detainees and may be extremely limited and ineffective. When combined with already poor conditions in prisons, this situation may endanger the lives of all detainees, including those imprisoned for exercising legitimate rights and freedoms.

On 2 June 2020, UN experts sent a letter to the Saudi government regarding the cases of male and female human rights advocates. The letter was signed by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights advocates; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls.

 

The cases

The letter indicated that the special rapporteurs had received information about the ongoing detention of five female human rights advocates and the death of another human rights advocate, Mr. Abdullah Hamid al-Hamid, in prison:

·         Loujain al-Hathloul is a female human rights advocate who participated in the campaign to allow Saudi women to drive for several years before her arrest.

·         Nouf Abdulaziz is a female human rights advocate, journalist, and television producer. Before her arrest, she contributed to a feminist blog in Saudi Arabia and was a strong supporter of reforming the country’s constitution. She was active on social media calling for the release of imprisoned human rights advocates.

·         Mayaa al-Zahrani is a female human rights advocate who was arrested after expressing her opposition to the arrest of activist Nouf Abdulaziz on social media.

·         Samar Badawi is a female human rights advocate who has pressed for women’s rights since 2010, when she filed a lawsuit against the government challenging the country’s male guardianship system.

·         Nassima al-Sadah is a female human rights advocate and journalist who wrote for an online newspaper in Saudi Arabia about women’s right to drive and increasing women’s political rights. She worked with several NGO’s prior to her arrest.

·         Abdullah al-Hamid was a human rights advocate and the co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (HASEM). He was a poet and previously worked as a professor of contemporary literature at Al Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh. He was dismissed from his job because of his human rights activism. Through HASEM, al-Hamid reported human rights violations to domestic and international mechanisms such as the UN and called for democratic and judicial reforms in Saudi Arabia. He received the Right to Livelihood Award in 2018. On 23 April 2020, al-Hamid died in prison at the age of 69.

 

Former UN correspondence

The letter noted that the five women activists had been the subject of several previous letters sent to the Saudi government, in which rapporteurs raised concerns that dozens of women human rights advocates had been arbitrarily detained and were suffering gross human rights violations in detention.

Likewise, Abdullah al-Hamid had been named in six previous letters to the Saudi government, in which rapporteurs raised concerns about his exposure to harsh conditions in prison, including solitary confinement, during his 11-year prison sentence related to his human rights work. In 2015, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that al-Hamid had been arbitrarily deprived of his freedom and called for his release. This call was renewed in 2016, when the UN Secretary-General raised Abdullah al-Hamid’s case in his annual report on intimidation and retaliation for cooperation with UN bodies and mechanisms in the field of human rights.

 

Women human rights advocates

According to the letter, on 13 March 2019, the trial began for the women human rights advocates accused of communicating with hostile people and entities and cooperating with hostile journalists and media institutions. The women were not permitted to speak during this hearing. During the second hearing, on 27 March 2019, journalists and international observers were not allowed to enter the court room. The defendants noted that they were exposed to torture and other serious human rights abuses while in detention. On 3 April 2019, a third hearing took place in the trial of Loujain al-Hathloul, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Nouf Abdulaziz, and other human rights advocates. During the trial, the Public Prosecution responded to their testimony by denying their allegations of abuse.

Between March and May 2019, seven other women human rights advocates arrested in the wake of the right-to-drive campaign were released. The first hearing for Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah was held on 27 June 2019, and the second and final hearing took place on 19 February 2020. Because of the Coronavirus, the defendants’ trial was suspended, and none of them have been considered for early release.

 

Abdullah al-Hamid

The letter from the UN rapporteurs noted that in January 2020, after years of suffering from various heart ailments, al-Hamid was transferred to King Saud Medical City in Riyadh. Due to his deteriorating health, doctors advised him that he urgently needed an operation for a heart catheterization. Despite the doctors’ recommendation, prison administrators allegedly returned him to prison and informed him that his operation would be postponed until the end of May or the beginning of June 2020. They also refused his request to remain in the hospital, and he did not receive regular medical care upon his return to prison. Al-Hamid was not considered for temporary release due to COVID-19, and phone calls with his family were severely restricted as the virus spread.

The rapporteurs wrote that on 9 April 2020, al-Hamid suffered a stroke in his cell and fell into a coma. He was moved from Ha’ir Prison to intensive care at King Saud Medical City, where he remained in critical condition for more than two weeks. On 23 April 2020, al-Hamid died. The rapporteurs expressed their grave concerns about the lack of medical care in the prison, which denied al-Hamid’s right to life.

 

Extraordinary measures

The letter from the rapporteurs indicated that, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saudi government has taken only limited steps to mitigate the virus’ health effects in prisons. On 26 March 2020, the Saudi government announced the release of 250 foreign detainees charged with illegal immigration. On 7 April 2020, King Salman bin Abdulaziz ordered the release of all those imprisoned for debt-related offences and suspended the implementation of their final rulings. The release of other categories of detainees has not been publicly announced, nor has the total number of detainees released early or temporarily been made public.

Furthermore, the special rapporteurs raised concerns about the harsh sentences handed down against human rights advocates in Saudi Arabia as a result of their legitimate activities, peaceful exercise of basic freedoms, and promotion of women’s rights and gender equality. Likewise, the rapporteurs expressed special concern for the prolonged detention of women human rights advocates without an adequate legal basis.

The special rapporteurs’ letter urged the Saudi government to implement non-custodial measures to reduce the number of prisoners, in accordance with the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial Measures. The special rapporteurs also advised the government to release all those detained without adequate legal basis, including human rights advocates imprisoned as a result of peaceful activities, in order to protect the physical and mental safety of all detainees.

The special rapporteurs called on Saudi Arabia to provide information regarding the ongoing detention of Loujain al-Hathloul, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Nouf Abdulaziz, Samar Badawi, and Nassima al-Sadah, including steps taken to ensure their physical and mental well-being, as well as their access to appropriate medical care, especially given the spread of COVID-19. The rapporteurs also asked the government to clarify whether it is considering releasing any of these women early because of the epidemic.

Moreover, the special rapporteurs asked the Saudi government to clarify the facts surrounding the death of Abdullah al-Hamid and why he was prevented from receiving treatment and remaining in the hospital, as well as to explain how its handling of al-Hamid’s case is consistent with Saudi Arabia’s obligations under international human rights law.

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