Earlier this month in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Al Bajadi was released from prison after being detained for two years. His crime? Founding the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), and speaking out against the autocratic practices of the government. The reasons for his release are unclear, but the release has brought attention to the fact that thousands of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia are currently languishing in jail for having committed the "crime" of publicly expressing dissent against the government. Bajadi comes from Shia school of Islam, which is socially and politically marginalized in Saudi Arabia.
In a country which does not even make a pretense of subscribing to democratic values or gender equality, there inevitably exists substantial dissatisfaction with the government. There is no room for criticising the royal family or the religious leaders of the Sunni school of Islam. Human-rights groups, if allowed, are those licensed by the government to deal with corruption and other administrative issues, as opposed to issues of freedom of speech, or atrocities committed by security forces. Bajadi's case is just one of the myriad gory insights into the workings of the Saudi political system.
In 2011, Bajadi was sentenced to four years of prison, charged with founding a human rights organization, questioning the judiciary, protesting publicly and encouraging relatives of political prisoners to protest, and harming the reputation of Saudi Arabia through the media. Bajadi was also denied access to his lawyers, and hence was tried without representation at the Specialised Criminal Court at Riyadh. It is interesting to note that Bajadi, a civilian defending human rights, was tried in a court meant to try cases of terrorism. Bajadi went on a hunger strike in early 2012 while in prison, resulting in authorities keeping him in solitary confinement and force-feeding him intravenously.
One of the foremost critics of the regime within the media, Mukhlif Al Shammari was banned from expressing his views, but he continued to do so online, working with organisations like Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, apart from running his own association. He was detained on several occasions in the past few years, including in 2010, for the preposterous offence of "annoying others" with his writings.
Co-founder of ACPRA Mohammad bin Fahad bin Muflih al-Qahtani was also sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, is still in jail, and will also be subject to a travel ban for 10 years post-release. Abu Al Khair, a human rights lawyer was charged with "offending the judiciary." In June this year, seven citizens were sentenced for posting critical comments about the government on Facebook. It is almost impossible to keep track of the numerous human rights activists being arrested, imprisoned, and abused in Saudi Arabia, but news reports are available here.
Apart from virtually criminalising free speech, the Saudi government and religious clerics continue to zealously uphold laws which prohibit women from appearing uncovered, driving, or making any formal representation without the consent of a male guardian. It is terrifying to imagine the punishment that would be meted out to female protesters.
Saudi Arabia is facing a clash of ideologies at the moment. An archaic monarchy built upon autocratic religious ideals, is in conflict with a new generation of citizens who aspire to freedom that the government is unable to reconcile itself with. These aspirations are a result of students having studied abroad and becoming aware of the extent of their oppression, along with intervention from organizations such as Amnesty International.
While the government bans any sort of "insurrection against rulers," it has also provided extensive handouts to citizens, such as loan waivers, aid for students, dole for the unemployed, cheap housing, and salary hikes for state employees. Clearly, Saudi Arabia intends to be a warped sort of selective welfare state, trying to assuage demands for civil liberty by satisfying immediate financial concerns.
However, despite the tyrannical regime and its violation of civil rights, a revolution is brewing, owing to thousands of courageous activists tirelessly trying to beat the system. One hopes that their pursuit will be supported by an international community unfazed by the oil-powered might of the state of Saudi Arabia. Here's to a state where bigoted oppressors are not infallible leaders, and defenders of human rights are not criminals.