When Saudi activists Abdullah al-Hamed and Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani headed to the Criminal Court in Riyadh on Saturday morning, they knew what was waiting for them. The two founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) have been on trial since June 2012, and the judge was expected to hand down his ruling at the session scheduled on Saturday. As the defendants arrived to the court, they were received by more than 100 activists who came to show their support and attend the hearing which was also marked by a heavy presence of security officers with truncheons hanging from their belts.
The government has been accusing al-Hamed and al-Qahtani with a series of charges that include founding an unlicensed human rights organization, seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder, undermining national unity, breaking allegiance to the ruler, disobeying the ruler, and questioning the integrity of officials. These are considered serious charges in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where political dissent in not usually tolerated. It does not allow protests, political parties, or unions. Saudi Arabia is also a main ally of the United States in the Middle East.
Shortly after 10:00 a.m., presiding judge Hammad al-Omar began reading his verdict to the packed courtroom. The long court decision took the judge over an hour to read. Al-Hamed interrupted him. "This is a political statement," the activist told the judge. "Just tell us the verdict and that would be enough." The judge refused and insisted on reading his decision in full. In the end, he announced his verdict. Al-Hamed was sentenced to five years plus six years of a previous jail term for his political activities from which he was pardoned by the king in 2005, as well as a travel ban for five years. ACPRA co-founder al-Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years followed by a 10-year travel ban. The judge also ordered the dissolving of ACPRA and the confiscation of its property, including the removal of its websites and social media accounts.
The sentences were not shocking to either man, but they were probably harsher than they expected. Al-Hamed, 62, is a long time activist who has been imprisoned repeatedly since the early 1990s for demanding reform in Saudi Arabia. In 2004, he and two other activists called for a constitutional monarchy, which landed them in jail for months before they were pardoned by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah shortly after he ascended the throne. "We are ready for jail," al-Hamed reportedly told the judge during a hearing in December 2012. While he has been imprisoned several times before, this is the first time that his co-founder al-Qahtani faces jail.
Al-Qahtani, a Western-educated economics professor, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Saudi government in recent years. In October 2009 he joined al-Hamed and nine other activists to establish ACPRA, an organization that documents human rights violations and has called for a constitutional monarchy and elections. ACPRA took a bold step in 2012 when it issued a statement asking King Abdullah to sack his half-brother and interior minister, Crown Prince Nayef, who they held responsible for human rights violations in the country. Nayef died shortly afterwards. Speaking to foreign media few months ago, the 47-year-old al-Qahtani said he was expecting to be jailed for three years and described a sentence of five years or more as "heavy."
After the judge finished reading his verdict, he issued another order to immediately arrest the two activists who were taken to the nearest police station. Al-Hamed gave a brief comment after the verdict was announced, accusing the court of being politicized. "This trial has proven that the judiciary is not independent and we are proud" of being sentenced to jail, he said. According to Saudi law, the defendants have a right to appeal the decision within 30 days.
Many activists say the trial was a landmark because al-Qahtani and al-Hamed have insisted on their right to an open and public trial. At first, the two activists were being tried separately and secretly. After the first hearing, the judge merged both cases but he insisted that the trial would remain behind closed doors. The activists refused, saying publicity was their only guarantee for justice. After a long debate that continued over five hearings, the judge finally agreed to open the trial. Over the next few months of hearings, other Saudi activists, intellectuals, and academics have crowded the courtroom in an unprecedented show of support. They have also taken to social media to talk about the case and criticize the government.
Reacting to the verdict Saturday on Twitter, some Saudis expressed shock and outrage. "Mockery... Mockery," said businessman and columnist Essam al-Zamel. Lawyer Badr al-Jaafari wrote it is "another day of tampering with the value of justice in the name of Sharia and under the cloak of religion."
Such statements of government criticism by Saudi citizens, quite unusual three or four years ago, have become very common on social media during the last two years. While the country seems to have survived the wave of popular uprisings that have swept the region since 2011 without major street protests, except by the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province, the past 25 months have been marked by the emergence of social media. Networking sites like Twitter have become a major public sphere for a country that didn't really have a public sphere before. According to Twiter's CEO, the increase in users in Saudi Arabia has been phenomenal. Latest stats say there are 4 million active Saudi Twitter users posting an average of 50 million tweets per month.
The government has tried to filter content coming through the service, but they are now realizing that their attempts of censorship on Twitter are futile. Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Abdulaziz Khoja admitted last month that the government is monitoring the social network. "We, along with a number of government authorities, monitor what is going on in Twitter. However, censorship is difficult due to the big number of users," he said, adding that awareness must be raised to address the problem. It was in this light that some observers saw a recent Twitter conference that was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh last week. Except for the first session on censorship, the list of speakers and the topics discussed were notably apolitical. "The shadows of governmental support discredited the conference," a blogger wrote. "It looked like it was mainly organized to deliver certain messages on behalf of the government." The event was organized by a charity linked to a member of the royal family who was recently promoted to a senior position.
Both al-Hamed and al-Qahtani have used social media as the main vehicle to spread their message and talk about their trial. The prison sentences could force their Twitter accounts to go silent, but it is unlikely that it will quiet down hundreds of thousands of others who use the site to debate the country's political and social issues. Social media has become the main platform for political expression in a country where the mainstream media is controlled and people don't have the right of assembly. It is also unlikely that the jailing of al-Hamed and al-Qahtani will end the calls for reform in Saudi Arabia, and although the judge has ordered ACPRA to be dissolved activists have said they will keep trying to do their work despite the attempts to silence them.
International rights organizations have previously condemned these attempts. Amnesty International has called the trial "just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the kingdom's human rights activists." Tamara Al-Rifai, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, told CNN "this has been a systematic approach by the authorities in Saudi Arabia -- namely, the targeting and harassing of activists across the country."
This pressure form human rights group probably won't push Saudi Arabia to move forward with major reforms or stop cracking down on activists, especially when Western powers choose to turn a blind eye to what happens in the kingdom. Janine Zacharia, a visiting lecturer at Stanford University, wrote in the Washington Post in January that "now would be the right time for Western governments - and Washington in particular - to set aside those concerns and do something to try to reverse this trend of Saudi Arabia imprisoning writers and activists."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Saudi capital last Sunday for talks with Saudi officials. Most of his talks focused on the situations in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and Iran as well as counterterrorism. Local Saudi issues only merited a brief statement. Kerry said, "We encourage further inclusive reforms to ensure that all citizens of the Kingdom ultimately enjoy their basic rights and their freedoms," and he commended the king's decision to appoint 30 women in the advisory Shura Council. There was no mention of the activists' trial.
Saudi writer Abdullah Alami suggested on Twitter that the U.S. government would have reacted differently if the sentences against the activists were issued in a country other than its oil-rich ally Saudi Arabia. He wrote, "A reality that we must know: if the sentences were issued in a poor country, Mr. John Kerry would be on television screens condemning human rights violations in that country."
JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images