Missing prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani’s family reject Saudi Human Rights Commission cover-up

May 08, 2024

MENA Rights Group and ALQST for Human Rights call on Saudi authorities to immediately disclose Mohammed al-Qahtani’s whereabouts and to release him, and to stop using the Saudi Human Rights Commission as cover for its rights violations.

Left: Mohammad al-Qahtani after the sixth trial session. © Sultan Alfifi/Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED. Right: Hala Mazyad Al-Tuwaijri, President of the Saudi Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia addresses the 52nd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva. © UN Photo / Violaine Martin, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED.

The wife of leading Saudi human rights defender Mohammed al-Qahtani has issued a statement categorically denying a Saudi official’s claim that he was recently in contact with his family, and accused the state-backed Saudi Human Rights Commission (SHRC) of covering up violations by the authorities, including al-Qahtani’s ongoing disappearance. ALQST and MENA Rights Group view this cover-up as typical of the SHRC’s role in whitewashing the Saudi authorities’ egregious human rights record, and call for an end to this abusive practice. 

Mohammed al-Qahtani, a founding member of the now-dissolved Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), has been forcibly disappeared since October 23, 2022, after completing a 10-year prison sentence for acts that fall under his right to freedom of expression. The Saudi authorities have failed to clarify his fate and whereabouts, with his case pending before the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances since November 2023.

SHRC President Hala al-Tuwaijri recently told US diplomats that al-Qahtani was in contact with his family and had spoken to them on the phone in recent days, and denied that he was in a state of enforced disappearance.

On learning this, al-Qahtani’s wife, Maha al-Qahtani, responded with a statement on behalf of the family in which she said al-Tuwaijri’s version of events was “utterly untrue”, and that her husband was not in contact with the family but remained forcibly disappeared. She called on the SHRC and al-Tuwaijri to disclose al-Qahtani’s fate and whereabouts, and to ensure he can communicate with his family and receive proper medical care and treatment. The statement also condemned the authorities’ failure to respond to any of the family’s numerous requests for information, and called for his immediate release. 

 ALQST and MENA Rights Group have been following the case of al-Qahtani with growing concern, and see al-Tuwaijri’s comments as typical of the way in which the SHRC operates: not as an independent body safeguarding human rights and defending the victims of state abuses, but as a tool for covering up the Saudi authorities’ violations. As highlighted in a report by MENA Rights Group and partner NGOs, the SHRC has acted with similar dishonesty towards many other victims of abuse, including women’s rights activists subjected to torture and child defendants facing the death penalty.  

MENA Rights Group’s Human Rights Officer Falah Sayed comments: “Hala al-Tuwaijri’s false claims illustrate more clearly than ever that the Commission’s supposed role of promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia is in fact a total sham. It serves only to mislead public opinion.”

The SHRC’s latest action again highlights the absence of accountability and oversight in Saudi Arabia. No independent monitoring of prisons is currently permitted in the country, and the authorities refuse to cooperate with United Nations bodies, denying country access to UN Special Procedures mandate holders. During the kingdom’s recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the Human Rights Council, several states called on the Saudi authorities to accept such visits.

ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Advocacy Lina AlHathloul comments: “With the SHRC failing abjectly to fulfil its mandate, and the Saudi authorities preventing information getting out, it is more vital than ever that international human rights organisations and experts are granted access to visit the country and monitor the reality on the ground.” 

ALQST and MENA Rights Group call on the Saudi authorities to immediately disclose Mohammed al-Qahtani’s whereabouts and to release him, and to stop using the SHRC as cover for its rights violations. We urge the United States to take more proactive measures to bring about the release of al-Qahtani, whose children are US citizens, and urge third-party governments to consider the SHRC a non-viable interlocutor in their negotiations regarding individual cases.

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