By Rafia Zakaria
THE trial of Saudi Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani had been going on since June 2012 in the criminal court in Riyadh.
When Mr Qahtani appeared in court on March 9 this year, he faced 11 charges.
As president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), he was accused among other things of “attempting to plant the seeds of discord and strife”, “questioning the Saudi Ulema Council by implying that they were a tool of the Saudi government”, “questioning the ability of the Saudi judiciary to deliver justice in accordance with Islamic Sharia” and “accusing the Saudi regime of being a police state built on injustice and oppression veiled in religion”.
A copy of the prosecutor’s memo listing all the charges in Arabic can be found on various sites on the internet.
Mr Qahtani founded the ACPRA in 2009, a human rights organisation that helped detainees in Saudi prisons, many of them held without charge or trial. It was one of the few independent such organisations there.
As its founder Mr Qahtani — a Western-educated economics professor — became in recent years one of the most fervent critics of the Saudi establishment. Because of his position on the lack of legal and political rights available to prisoners in Saudi Arabia, he faced several obstacles.
A year ago, Mohammed Saleh al-Bejadi, co-founder of the ACPRA, was also arrested by the Saudi authorities. He was subsequently sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and a five-year travel ban.
After his arrest, and during and after his trial and sentencing, Mr Bejadi was not allowed to see his legal team. They were also not permitted to visit him during his trial, forced instead to stand outside the courtroom for hours while proceedings took place inside.
When Mr Qahtani and his fellow defendant Dr Abdullah al-Hamid appeared in court on March 9, therefore, they knew that their chances could not be good.
According to reports, shortly after 10am Hammad al-Omar, the judge appointed to the proceedings, began to read the judgement against them. Predictably, both Mr Qahtani and Dr Hamid had been found guilty on every single count.
They were sentenced to five and 10 years respectively and travel bans equivalent to the prison sentences were also imposed. Additionally, the court ordered the forced disbanding of the ACPRA, the confiscation of all of its property and the shutting down of its social media accounts.
The trial and sentencing of Mr Qahtani is representative of a potent strain of upheaval festering within Saudi society as it deals with the reverberations of the Arab Spring.
The trial of Mr Qahtani, short as it was, represented the nervousness of the Saudi establishment in confronting demands for change and an opening up of civil and political rights.
At a hearing prior to the sentencing, the court had faced severe criticism for not holding open proceedings. The March 9 hearing was perhaps in response to this very pressure, open to the public. However, apprehensive about the defendant’s supporters packing the courtroom, the Saudi authorities ensured that most of the seats were filled by members of the Saudi security establishment.
Like so many other posturing ‘freedoms’ in Saudi Arabia, a trial “open to the public” did not allow the public to be present.
Unusual for Saudi Arabia was the response of ordinary Saudis, many of whom took to the social media to criticise the verdict. According to reports from Twitter, Saudi Arabia has seen a phenomenal increase in the number of users over the past few years, with almost 250,000 new users signing up in a single week.
Three million Saudis are said to have Twitter accounts equalling nearly 11pc of the total Saudi population and representing the fastest single growth in the use of that means of social networking.
Though not revolutionary in itself, the elevation must be alarming to Saudi authorities when they consider the importance of the social media in whetting and sustaining the uprisings in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world.
The fact that many Saudi Twitter users were using the platform to criticise the government annoyed even Saudi religious authorities with the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh calling Twitter users a “council of clowns”.
The newfound affinity of Saudi citizens to tweet their displeasure at Saudi authorities is, however, unlikely to help Mr Qahtani, whose condition in prison is reported to be grave following a recent hunger strike to protest his sentence.
Beyond the local, international help is also unlikely to be of much assistance. While Amnesty International and other rights groups immediately issued denunciations of the sentences, few of Saudi Arabia’s long-standing allies have taken up the issue.
In his first visit to Saudi Arabia, US Secretary of State John Kerry not only ignored the case of the imprisoned activists but went as far as to commend the Saudi king’s decision to appoint 30 women to “advisory” roles in the Shura Council as an example of positive reform in the country.
The American silence, added to the general inability of countries in the Muslim world to take on Saudi Arabia on any issue, however egregious, means that at least for the present time, imprisoned Saudi activists such as Mr Qahtani can expect little redress and no justice.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.