October 15, 2022
Dear Foreign Minister,
On behalf of the organizations undersigned below, we would like to congratulate you on your appointment as Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs. At a time of significant global uncertainty and unrest, the UK can and must play a leading role in promoting human rights around the world. While we appreciate the wide and varied range of issues you and your department face, we are writing to you today to draw your attention to the treatment of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia who have been imprisoned for speaking out .
The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2008 to try terrorism suspects, has instead imposed disproportionate penalties, including the death penalty, on people simply for speaking out online. Disguised in the language of cybercrime, this has effectively criminalized free speech and has also been used against individuals outside of Saudi Arabia.
You will have heard about the shameful case of the Saudi citizen Salma al-Shehab, who was a student at Leeds University at the time of her alleged “crime” – sharing content in support of prisoners of conscience and women human rights defenders like Loujain Alhathloul. For this, Salma al-Shehab was arrested after her return to Saudi Arabia and arbitrarily detained for almost a year before being sentenced to 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban. The fact that the Punishment is four years longer as the maximum penalty proposed by the country’s counter-terrorism laws for activities such as supplying explosives or hijacking an airplane, demonstrates the outrageous and dangerous standard set by both the SCC and the Saudi regime to limit free speech. It also further illustrates those of the Saudi government abusive surveillance system and Infiltration of social media platforms to silence public dissent.
But the actions directed against Salma al-Shehab did not take place in isolation. In fact, her conviction is the latest in a long-standing trend that has led to the Saudi judiciary and state at large being co-opted to target civil society and basic human rights. On the same day that al-Shehab was convicted, the SCC stated condemned another woman, Nourah bint Saeed Al-Qahtanito 45 years in prison after using social media to peacefully voice her views. Ten Egyptian Nubians were sentenced to up to 18 years in prison following their arrest and detention – incommunicado for two months and without access to their lawyers or family members – after organizing a symposium commemorating the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. dr Lina al-Sharif was arbitrarily detained for over a year following her social media activism after a group of State Security Presidential agents searched her family’s home and arrested her without a warrant. A worrying dimension is the use of force and torture to extract confessions, as well as continued persecution or surveillance after a prisoner is released, further undermining the legitimacy of the SCC and its judgements.
The UK’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia should not prevent you from upholding human rights obligations and speaking out against violations when brought to your attention, particularly in the case of al-Shehab when it comes to the application of Saudi law to lawsuits im territory of the United Kingdom. Indeed, this relationship puts you in a strong position to demand the immediate release of all prisoners unlawfully held in Saudi Arabia.
Acting definitively so early in your term would be a powerful symbol, both for our allies and others, that the UK can be a trusted defender of human rights and the rule of law.
We await your action on this important issue and continue to support the calls to action outlined by over 400 academics, staff and research students from UK universities and colleges in a letter to you and the Prime Minister.
If you require more information, we are happy to organize a briefing at a time that suits you best.
Index to Censorship
ALQST for human rights
SANAD Organization for Human Rights
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Golf Center for Human Rights (GCHR)
Vigilance for democracy and civil state
Get it now
Human Rights Watch
Front line defenders