October 24, 2023
We, the undersigned organisations, reiterate our call on Saudi Arabia’s authorities to disclose the whereabouts of detained Saudi human rights defender Mohammed al-Qahtani and allow him contact with his family. Al-Qahtani has been forcibly disappeared for a whole year and must be released immediately and unconditionally.
Mohammed al-Qahtani, a human rights defender, academic, and co-founder of the now-disbanded Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), has been denied contact with his family and the outside world since 24 October 2022. The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to refuse to give clear information about his whereabouts, thus making him a victim of enforced disappearance. While disappeared, individuals are at heightened risk of other human rights violations, such as physical torture. Because of his peaceful human rights work and calls for democratic reforms, al-Qahtani has been arbitrarily detained in Al-Ha’ir Prison since 2013, and completed a 10-year sentence on 22 November 2022.
Saudi Arabia’s authorities have provided misleading information about al-Qahtani’s whereabouts. On 30 October 2022, his wife was told by a prison guard that he had been transferred to a different, unspecified, prison. Yet, on 30 January 2023, in response to a UN communication, the Saudi authorities claimed that he was still being held in Al-Ha’ir. More recently, in August 2023, Al-Ha'ir Prison officials affirmed to al-Qahtani’s wife, in a recorded phone call, that his name could not be found in their system.
In the aforementioned response to the UN communication, the Saudi authorities further claimed that al-Qahtani remained behind bars, despite having served his sentence, because he was under investigation for “committing and inciting others to commit a number of criminal offences within the prison”. Al-Qahtani was due to appear before the Specialised Criminal Court for retrial on 1 May 2023, but the trial was postponed due to his absence. His ongoing enforced disappearance further undermines his right to a fair trial, including access to legal counsel.
Al-Qahtani’s continued disappearance also heightens concerns for his health and well-being, as he has faced repeated harassment and ill-treatment during his imprisonment. He has undertaken several hunger strikes to protest against the mistreatment he has suffered, including being held in a wing for inmates with mental health issues, and on two occasions being assaulted by fellow prisoners. Such treatment is in keeping with a growing trend whereby the Saudi authorities place the lives of prisoners of conscience at risk through reckless or deliberate negligence. Two particularly tragic examples have been the death of ACPRA co-founder Abdullah al-Hamid in April 2020 as a result of medical neglect by the Saudi authorities, and the apparently contrived murder of political reformer Musa al-Qarni in his prison cell in October 2021.
Al-Qahtani's arbitrary detention beyond the expiry of his prison sentence reflects another worrying trend affecting prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia: in some cases the authorities have actually increased the sentences of those already serving prison terms, or even those due to be released.
In light of the above-mentioned, we reiterate our call on the Saudi authorities to immediately and unconditionally disclose Mohammed al-Qahtani’s whereabouts and to release him. We urge the authorities to allow him immediate contact with his family, and provide him with the necessary medical care. Saudi Arabia must ensure a free and enabling environment for all human rights defenders, and allow them to carry out their legitimate activities without undue restrictions or fear of reprisals.
- ALQST for Human Rights
- European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR)
- FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
- Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
- Human Rights First
- Human Rights Foundation (HRF)
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
- MENA Rights Group
- Right Livelihood
- World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders