What are the limits of free speech and open dissent in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? They are often unclear and seemingly arbitrary, but there is no doubt that Dr. Mohammad al-Qahtani, a professor and activist, went well beyond them, and he knew it. He was hardly surprised when Saudi prosecutors, finally fed up with his vociferous denunciations of the regime, hit him with a long list of criminal charges. He had predicted it, and in the context of Saudi Arabia, he was asking for it.
“Make no mistake,” he said shortly before a recent procedural hearing on his case. “We are all going to prison.” By “we” he meant himself and two colleagues in the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, perhaps the most outspoken and daring agitators for human rights and personal freedom in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is an autocratic monarchy in which citizens are disenfranchised, but it is not North Korea. People travel freely, have access to the Internet and are generally free to grumble about official incompetence or inadequate public services, as many do. But criticism of the monarchy, of the personal foibles of the king and senior princes, or of Islam and the religious establishment is prohibited. Signing a petition asking for the creation of an elected parliament has been tolerated, but it has been risky to go much beyond that.
Al-Qahtani clearly ventured into forbidden territory. He openly referred to the late Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the longtime Interior minister, as “a criminal” for the state’s alleged abuses of thousands of political prisoners, and demanded that King Abdullah not only fire him but prosecute him. Before Nayef’s recent death, al-Qahtani’s group circulated a petition asking that Nayef be removed as crown prince because he was “not fit to be the next king.”
He and his colleagues also embarrassed the regime by publicizing the case of a reform-minded young prince who says he was drugged and kidnapped by Saudi agents in Geneva, hauled back to Saudi Arabia and placed under house arrest.
Al-Qahtani is one of very few activists who talk openly about the possibility that the al-Saud regime, which has ruled for nearly a century, could be replaced. He does not call for the overthrow of the regime, but in conversations and in interviews with non-Saudi media he suggests that it could bring about its own downfall by refusing to reform and modernize. In that he goes beyond even reform-minded liberals who share some of his views. They generally avoid any such discussion — partly because they think the monarchical system is capable of change and preferable to any known alternative and partly because, as some will admit, they are unwilling to sacrifice their own comfortable positions by speaking out against a system from which they benefit. To them, al-Qahtani is not just courageous but reckless, a characterization he rejects.
“Are we going to be quiet?” he said in a long conversation conducted openly in the lobby of a Riyadh hotel. “This regime is enslaving my people. If we keep our mouths shut, nothing will happen. Tens of thousands of people are locked up. We have to do something about this.” He said the ruling princes routinely enrich themselves through corrupt land deals, and “they control the courts and the media. Our strategy is to ‘name, shame and blame.’”
Following that strategy, he said, “we uncovered a secret prison in Qassim where a young Yemeni was tortured to death. We wrote a letter to the secret police. We told them ski masks won’t hide the identity of the torturers, we know who they are. We cited the names in a document we sent to the UN I think the secret police were horrified that we did that, that we made this public.”
He and his colleagues want “the rule of law,” he said, and if the law is corrupt because it is manipulated by the regime that dictates it, then the regime itself must be forced to change.
Al-Qahtani, 46, is an unlikely activist. Indeed he might seem to be a comfortable beneficiary of the Saudi system. He has a doctorate from Indiana University, a wife, four children, and a good government job, teaching economics at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies, a unit of the Foreign Ministry. He said he is prepared to sacrifice it all in the cause of human rights.
He is prohibited from leaving the country, but until mid-June he had not faced criminal charges, and he still has not been fired. In fact, his seeming impunity aroused suspicion among others in Riyadh’s small circle of reform advocates. They said he was letting himself be used by the government, to show its relative benevolence, or was perhaps in league with the government, pursuing some secret agenda. That ended in mid-June with the filing of criminal charges that are likely to bring imprisonment later this year.
One of the charges against him is founding an unlicensed organization. Given that no independent citizen organizations are ever licensed or permitted because the regime regards any group it does not control as potentially subversive, he broke the rules simply by founding his human rights advocacy group and enlisting others to join it. Most of the other charges are not about what he did but what he said.
According to a translation of the prosecution documents provided by a sympathetic Saudi blogger, al-Qahtani is charged with:
1. Attempting to plant the seeds of discord and strife, breaking allegiance to the ruler and his successor, questioning the integrity of and insulting state officials.
2. Questioning the integrity and piety of the members of the Senior Ulema Council by – falsely – accusing it of being a tool that approves government policies in return for financial and moral support, as in the case of forbidding street protests.
3. Accusing [the] Saudi judiciary in its regulations and applications of being unable to deliver justice for breaching the standards set by Islamic Sharia.
4. Accusing [the] Saudi judiciary of being unjust by allowing torture and accepting confessions extracted under duress.
5. Accusing the Saudi regime – unfairly – of being a police state built on injustice and oppression veiled in religion, and [of] using the judiciary to legitimize injustice to continue its systematic approach to violate human rights.
6. Inciting public opinion by accusing security bodies and their senior officials of oppression, torture, assassination, enforced, and violating human rights.
He is also accused of “antagonizing international organizations against the Kingdom, and instigating them to focus on criticizing the Kingdom’s civic, political, economical, social and cultural fundamentals” and giving false information to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
In an e-mail message after the charges were filed, al-Qahtani did not deny any of the charges, and was unrepentant about his group’s activities.
“I ain't worried about Saudi regime's interrogation, charges against us, or court trial," he wrote. “The Saudi regime would soon lose its grip, and things would spin out of control. I am still very optimistic about the future because the regime will continue to deteriorate. Political and socioeconomic problems will snowball out of control. Eventually, the regime will fail, and people too would soon realize its failure. I guess it's our destiny to face prison terms, and possibly the loss of our steady source of income. This price, however, is a small token for regaining our people's liberty and freedom.”
Some sympathizers saw hints of progress in the government’s move against al-Qahtani in that he was formally accused in an open court proceeding instead of simply hauled off to jail for an indefinite stretch.
The international human rights organization Amnesty International, which has long been critical of the Saudi legal system, took a less benign view.
“The Saudi Arabian authorities’ trial of Mohammad al-Qahtani is just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the Kingdom’s human rights activists,” said Philip Luther, director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa Program. “The case against him should be thrown out of court as it appears to be based solely on his legitimate work to defend human rights in Saudi Arabia and his sharp criticism of the authorities.”
Since becoming king in 2005, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has occasionally intervened in court cases that resulted in obvious miscarriages of justice or brought ridicule on the kingdom. Mohammad al-Qahtani is unlikely to be treated with similar benevolence.
Thomas W. Lippman is the author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge:The Uncertain Future of an American Ally.