Mohammad al-Qahtani interviewed after his trial this month (Photo: Mamdouh Saeed)
Jess Hill writes for the Global Mail:
It was the first day of September, and inside the courtroom it was stiflingly hot.
On the tiled floor sat 65-year-old civil rights activist Abdullah al-Hamid. Waiting for his turn to defend himself, he fanned
himself with the document detailing his alleged crimes against the state.
In front of the judge sat 46-year-old Mohammad al-Qahtani, an American-educated economics professor who, together with al-Hamid, co-founded the Saudi Political and Civil Rights Association (ACPRA) in 2009.
In a kingdom where human rights groups are virtually non-existent, ACPRA is a rare — and bold — exception. It reports on human rights violations to international monitors such as the United Nations, and helps the families of prisoners detained without charge to file cases against the Ministry of Interior. Since its establishment in mid-October 2009, ACPRA has taken the lead in defending prisoners in Saudi Arabia "because there is no independent agency that can defend them," says al-Qahtani. ACPRA isn't picky about who it assists; its activists insist that both dissidents and militant suspects deserve a fair trial.
But now they're the ones on trial, and both al-Qahtani and al-Hamid face a litany of charges. These include breaking allegiance to the ruler, describing Saudi Arabia as a police state, accusing the judiciary of allowing torture, and turning international organisations against the Kingdom. If convicted, the two men could spend several years in prison and face a large fine. Al-Qahtani believes a conviction is likely; in April this year, ACPRA co-founder Mohammed al-Bajadi was jailed for four years on similar charges.
"The trial of Mohammad al-Qahtani is just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the Kingdom's human rights activists," wrote Philip Luther, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program, in a statement in June.
On September 5, Amnesty sent out an urgent action notice, stating that the case against both men "appears to be based solely on their legitimate work to defend human rights in Saudi Arabia and their criticism of the authorities".
Political trials don't usually draw a crowd in Saudi Arabia, but this day was an exception. Al-Hamid and al-Qahtani are considered two of the most important activists in the Kingdom, and on this day they were scheduled to defend themselves in front of the court. The courtroom in Riyadh's Specialised Criminal Court, established in 2008 to deal with suspected terrorists, was crammed with over 50 activists, prominent intellectuals and relatives of prisoners the two men had defended.