He’s the lawyer who has defended so many others who have had their human rights denied. But Waleed Abu al-Khair is now serving a 15-year prison sentence for his human rights activism.
From setting up one of the few human rights organisations in Saudi Arabia to representing blogger Raif Badawi in court, Waleed is one of the most outspoken critics of rights abuses by the Saudi Arabian government.
Waleed was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2014 for terrorism-related ‘crimes’, although the charges against him are baseless – he’s really being punished for his human rights work.
On 7 June 2016, Waleed began a hunger strike in the Jeddah prison where he’s being kept, to protest against the prison authorities’ refusal to provide him with medical care he needs and his ongoing ill-treatment.
Waleed suffers from diabetes and intestinal complications for which he needs medical attention and a special diet that the prison authorities have refused to give him.
Waleed was beaten by another prisoner in April. When he complained to prison authorities about it, his cell was raided.
Jailed for discussing human rights
On 6 July 2014, Waleed was sentenced to 15 years in prison, a 15-year travel ban and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (over £35,000) as punishment for his human rights activities – including holding discussions about human rights in his home, defending those who have been punished for speaking out, and signing a letter that criticised authorities for imprisoning a group of activists who had peacefully advocated democratic reform.
Waleed was found guilty of numerous charges by a judge in a security and counter-terror court, including:
- Disobeying the ruler and seeking to remove his legitimacy
- Insulting the judiciary and questioning the integrity of judges
- Setting up an unlicensed organisation
- Harming the reputation of the state by communicating with international organizations and
- Preparing, storing and sending information that harms public order.
Waleed had refused to accept the charges put to him by the Saudi Arabian authorities throughout his trial, which began in October 2013, or to recognise the legality of the court he was being tried in.
Halfway through his trial, in February 2014, Saudi Arabia brought in new anti-terrorism law, which the courts applied to Waleed’s case. He was the first human rights activist to be tried and sentenced under the new law, which extended existing laws used by courts to crack down on free speech through overly vague definitions of ‘terrorism’ – and legitimised and ramped up the punishment against human rights activists like Waleed.
Waleed’s sentence was upheld at an appeal court on 12 January 2015, where the appeal judge told Waleed that he would serve the full 15 years in prison, rather than a reduced sentence of ten years, as he had refused to apologise for his alleged offences.
Treatment in detention
When Waleed was arrested in April 2014, he was initially taken to al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh, where he says he was kept in solitary confinement and deprived of sleep through constant exposure to bright lights.
Waleed says he’s been beaten in prison and denied food. He also suffers from diabetes, for which he needs special treatment and a special diet, which have not been provided by the authorities.
Years of harassment
Waleed was harassed, interrogated, kept under surveillance and banned from travelling by the Saudi Arabian authorities for four years before his detention.
In October 2013 he was arrested for holding a ‘diwanniya’ – an informal gathering at his home to discuss human rights issues and reform; later that month he was sentenced to three months in prison for ‘ridiculing’ or ‘offending’ the Saudi Arabian judiciary, and harming the image of the state by communicating with international organisations.
He has been banned from travelling by Saudi Arabia – and prevented from traveling abroad to participate in human rights conferences or to receive international human rights prizes he has been awarded.
Defending those whose rights are under attack
Waleed has dedicated his life and career to calling on the Saudi Arabian government to respect human rights.
In 2008 he founded one of the few local human rights organisations operating in the country, the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.
He has provided legal representation to many victims of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, including activists charged with forming ‘unlicensed’ human rights organisations.
In 2009, the authorities banned him from representing specific defendants in courts, but Waleed refused to obey them, continuing to support and represent human rights activists challenging the authorities. One of his cases before his own imprisonment was the blogger Raif Badawi, currently imprisoned for a decade, who made international headlines when he was publicly flogged earlier this year for running a website that promoted debate on social and political topics.
Waleed has a young daughter who was born while he was in prison. He first saw her during his trial. She’s now one and a half.