Mikhlif al-Shammari: Horrific Human Rights Violations Aren't Enough to Disrupt Saudi-U.S. Friendship

Saudi Arabia has done it again. They've come up with yet another fabricated reason for arresting a peaceful human rights activist. On June 17, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced prominent human rights advocate Mikhlif al-Shammari to five years in prison.  Shammari has also been prohibited from traveling for 10 years, according to Human Rights Watch.

The conviction — "sowing discord."

"Al-Shammari is the latest in a lengthening line of Saudi human rights activists hauled before the courts and branded as criminals for exercising their right to free speech," said the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, Joe Stork. Just two days earlier a Khobar court sent two women to prison for "inciting a woman against her husband." But the United States hasn't seemed to notice the violations. Our political and military support of Saudi Arabia has remained unchanged. 

Al-Shammari, a 58-year-old writer, has worked as a representative of the Sunni al-Shammar tribe to improve relations with the Shia minority. He has written many articles that have been critical of the Saudi Arabian government as well as religious leaders. He was arrested in 2010 for "annoying others" and held until 2012 when he was finally released on bail.

"I don't know why they lie to us and then ask us to trust them," he wrote in 2010 in an article about Prince Sultan Salman bin Abd al-'Aziz.

In 2008, Saudi Arabia's Supreme Judicial Council created the Specialized Criminal Court to convict terrorists and it has been widely criticized ever since for its subjectivity and unfair procedures.  

Saudi Arabian prosecutors and judges have the ability to criminalize any act on the basis of their own interpretation of the principles of Islamic law, because the country has no written criminal law. But International human rights standards guarantee a fair trial and prohibit arbitrary arrest, two things that continue to be commonplace in Saudi Arabia. The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has been a party of since 2009, states that "No crime and no penalty can be established without a prior provision of the law." Furthermore, international human rights standards prohibit the criminalization of peaceful speech.

Despite these pretty egregious human rights violations the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia, keeping the country high on its list of several convenient allies in the Middle East. Not a week goes by without new news criticizing the gross human rights violations in Syria or Iran, yet the United States has easily turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's sorry track record. It is a classic clash of values and interests, a clash that has become far too common in U.S. foreign policy. Almost 12 years after Bush declared the war on terror, the hypocrisy continues. The United States cannot justify "spreading democracy" in the Middle East while it continues to so blatantly ignore rights violations of tyrannical governments at its own convenience.

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Kristen Ellingboe

Kristen is currently a journalism and political science student at Emory University.

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