[Facebook pages’] followers and concealing them.” All seven were also convicted of violating article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law, which prohibits producing, sending, or storing any material via an information network that “harms public order.”
The court imposed its harshest sentence – 10 years in prison – on Abd al-Hamid al-Amer. Prosecutors accused him of founding two Facebook groups, through which he allegedly “conscripted others to join the movements” and “gave them ideas and guidance on the important sites in which to protest and set the timing [of the protests].”
None of the charges accused the seven of using or advocating violence, as the presiding judge confirmed in the judgment, saying, “Breaking allegiance [with the king] comes by way of arms and it comes by way of protests, marches, and writing articles and publications … the behavior of the [second] course … is sometimes the more dangerous and more malicious method.”
The Facebook groups that prosecutors cited, including the “al-Ahsa March 4 Youth Movement” and “The Free Men of al-Ahsa,” arose in early 2011 after the authorities arrested Tawfiq al-Amer, a prominent Shia sheikh and religious leader in the al-Ahsa region of Eastern Province who had publicly called for a constitutional monarchy. His arrest provoked widespread protests and the authorities arrested dozens of his supporters in al-Ahsa in March 2011. The same court sentenced the sheikh to four years in prison in April 2013 and banned him from writing and public speaking.
The seven men all admitted to participating in the Facebook pages in support of al-Amer, but told the court they were unaware that it was a crime. They denied having any intention to break allegiance with the king or harm public order.
The prosecution, however, produced confessions that each of the seven had signed in pre-trial custody, which the court accepted as evidence of guilt although several of the defendants said intelligence officers had tortured them into signing the confessions. The presiding judge dismissed the torture allegations out of hand, describing the defendants’ claims as “not acceptable” due especially to “their inability to prove the allegations of coercion and torture.”
“The judge’s outright dismissal of the defendants’ torture allegations shows how little interest he had in finding the truth,” Stork said. “What these men did should never have been considered crimes in the first place, and the outcome was effectively determined from day one.”
A family member of one of the seven prisoners told Human Rights Watch that none of them had the money to hire a lawyer. Saudi Arabia’s Criminal Procedure Law does not entitle defendants to legal representation, and there is no provision for a public defender for those who cannot afford a lawyer. Family members told Human Rights Watch that the seven intend to appeal their convictions. If they do so unsuccessfully, the time they have already served in prison will be deducted from their sentences, the court judgment says.
Saudi Arabia has no written penal code and prosecutors and judges have discretion to criminalize acts based on their own interpretation of Islamic law. The lack of clear and predictable criminal law violates international human rights principles, such as those that prohibit arbitrary arrest and guarantee fair trials. Article 15 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, states: “No crime and no penalty can be established without a prior provision of the law. In all circumstances, the law most favorable to the defendant shall be applied.” International human rights standards also prohibit the criminalization of peaceful speech.
Article 32 of the Arab Charter guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to impart news to others by any means.
The conviction of the seven comes amid a series of other convictions of peaceful dissidents and human rights activists in June. The same court sentenced a human rights activist, Mikhlif al-Shammari, to five years in prison on June 17 for “sowing discord” and a host of other charges stemming from his peaceful activism. Two days earlier, a Khobar court sentenced the women’s rights advocates Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni to 10 months in prison for allegedly “inciting a woman against her husband.” On June 24, a court in the central Najd town of Buraida sentenced human rights activist Abd al-Kareem al-Khodr to eight years in prison on charges that included “slandering the king” and “joining an unlicensed organization.”
“The EU should publicly press Saudi Arabia to stop jailing human rights activists and peaceful dissidents, and to respect its international human rights obligations,” Stork said.
Men Convicted for Inciting Protests through Facebook
Saleh bin Abd al-Muhsin bin Ali al-Shaya`: 5 years in prison and 5-year travel ban;
Hussein bin Salman bin Yasin al-Sulayman: 7 years and 7-year travel ban;
Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Abd a-Hadi al-Khalifa: 8 years and 8-year travel ban;
Mostafa bin Haji bin Hussein al-Mujahad: 6 years and 6-year travel ban;
Hussein bin Ali bin bin Mohammed al-Bathir: 5 years and 5-year travel ban;
Ali bin Hassan bin Ali al-Hadlaq: 7 years and 7-year travel ban; and
Abd al-Hamid bin Abd al-Muhsin bin Abdullah al-Amer: 10 years and 10-year travel ban.