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Terrorists? No, they're human rights campaigners. But Saudi Arabia has jailed them anyway Open in fullscreen

Madeleine Miller

Terrorists? No, they're human rights campaigners. But Saudi Arabia has jailed them anyway

Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani (L) and Issa al-Nukhaifi are among 60,000 Saudi prisoners of conscience [SultanAlfifi/FrontLineDefenders]

Date of publication: 17 October, 2018

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The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi should not be viewed in isolation. There are suspected to be thousands of Saudi prisoners of conscience, writes Madeleine Miller.
The disappearance and alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to make headlines around the world. 

"Rogue killers" could be to blame for the disappearance of Khashoggi, who has not been seen since he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to sort out marriage paperwork, US President Donald Trump said after telephone talks with the Saudi king.

But according to Turkish sources, the journalist was killed and dismembered inside the consulate. Reports have gone further to suggest that a forensic official in the Saudi General Security Department cut up Khashoggi in minutes after he entered the kingdom's consulate.

Salah al-Tubaigy - one of 15 Saudi agents sent to Istanbul the same day Khashoggi vanished - cut up Khashoggi's body in the presence of the consul general, Mohammed al-Otaibi. The operation lasted seven minutes and Tubaigy told his colleagues to listen to music while he dismembered the body, Turkish sources said, citing recordings of the incident.

Read also: The full story of why MbS might have wanted Jamal Khashoggi dead

However, Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance and alleged murder should not be viewed in isolation, as there are suspected to be thousands of Saudi prisoners of conscience detained under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's regime.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post op-ed writer, penned articles critical of some of bin Salman's policies. But he is just one of the many voices that MbS and his brutal regime continue to silence. 

Saudi Arabia has misused broad counter terrorism laws to punish peaceful dissident

Dr Abdullah al-Hamid is one current prisoner of conscience in Riyadh's al-Hayer Prison.

"The Saudi establishment has created three types of people," he writes.

"One, the submissive majority; two, the rebels who use violence to express their rebellion; and three, the rebels who express their rebellion peacefully."

From one silent universe to another: The story of Issa al-Nukhaifi

Anticipating arrest, Issa al-Nukhaifi, a former ministry of interior employee, tweeted: "I did not steal trillions. I did not buy a yacht and I did not buy a plane… so why the summons?"

Nukhaifi's refusal to accept inequality and corruption is due to a traumatic childhood, he says. He grew up in Jazan province, bordering Yemen and the Red Sea. Jazan is known for its wolves, gazelles, mountains and forests. Nukhaifi's village was in Al-Aridah, where his father grew wheat and raised a few cattle. His father could read the Quran, but his mother was illiterate. When he was five, his father was killed in an accident, leaving his mother to raise eight children alone. 

Submerged in poverty, his schooling was not a priority. He was underdeveloped and had significant speech difficulties. He felt the walls of a speechless universe pressing heavily upon him.  

His story, as he tells it, continues: One day he called upon God's help. In front of his shocked mother and villagers, impassioned sentences gushed from his mouth. Dressed in an oversized thobe and shoes for the first time, he was sent to school.

Although starving, education fed his hunger for knowledge and alleviated his suffering. But with no high schools in the area, he was soon forced to work.

He sewed clothes for villagers and survived mostly on cow and sheep milk. Meat was only enjoyed during Eid al-Adha. 

After 18 years, Nukhaifi left the village behind. He joined the Ministry of Interior's military division as a soldier in the Special Forces. He served there for several years.  

His human rights activism was first sparked by the events at the Jazan border in 2009-2010. Saudi soldiers crossed into Yemen to subdue a Houthi incursion. A buffer zone was established, displacing around 12,000 Jazan residents (around 200-300 villages according to semi-official estimates) and many Yemeni civilians were reported to have been killed. 

Following the war, large fences prevented residents from returning to their lands. In August 2012, Nukhaifi helped organise a peaceful sit-in protest and an online petition, but he was arrested.

Although committees were established to compensate the displaced, they were mired by corruption, incompetence and non-regulation. Many residents reported the random nature of the compensation allocation, disproportionate to need and land loss. Some reported missing out altogether.  Soon the compensation ceased for everyone. 

In September 2012, Issa discovered the embezzlement of one billion riyal ($266 million) of Jazan's public funds within the Ministry of Interior. After writing a letter to the MOI, he was interrogated only about how he found out, not the allegations of corruption. 

He feared assassination. In return for his silence he was offered a stipend and work with King Abdullah's Foundation for Development Housing. He refused. 

"I wish to meet God without a single sinfully gained riyal," he was quoted as saying.

As a warrant was prepared for his arrest, he went on Rotana television, posted a video on YouTube and sent a 280-page report outlining the corruption occurring in Jazan to the then deputy Minister of Interior, Prince Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz. 

In April 2013 in the Specialised Criminal Court - Saudi Arabia's anti-terrorism court, created in 2008 - Nukhaifi was charged with offences including instigating rebellion against the ruler, challenging the king's legitimacy and accusing the state of neglecting its duties towards the Saudi people.

Nukhaifi's family were harassed. His lawyer was forced to stop defending him. He served two years and eight months in prison, where he was physically and psychologically tortured.

He spent 13 days in solitary confinement, was stripped and subjected to freezing temperatures. He went on hunger strike for 20 days. 

His release in April 2016 was subject to a four-year travel and social media ban. 

He was again arrested on December 18 2016 and interrogated. After a year in arbitrary detention, he was sentenced to six years in prison (and a social media ban) for "inciting public opinion" over Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and his proposal for a popularly elected parliament. He has lost appeals against his sentence.  

A family's struggle: The story of Mohammed Al Qahtani

On the other side of the world, in the US, Maha al-Qahtani is trying to raise five children away from harassment while her husband, Dr Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani serves a 10-year sentence that began in March 2013. 

Their four-year-old has never met her father. 

"You're stupid," she says to her father on the phone. "It's easy. You just hop on an aeroplane and mama will pick you up at the airport." 

Maha doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. 

Qahtani taught political economy at the Saudi Institute of Diplomatic Affairs. He has a PhD from the University of Indiana.

In 2009, Qahtani co-founded ACPRA, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. He started talking to people of different ages, from different tribes and religions about non-violent protest as a path to change. 

In 2011, he supported a demonstration by Saudi women and was involved in the Women to Drive Movement. In 2012, Time Magazine included him in the World's Top 100 thinkers.  

"Many people, including our family, would say to us - you have a nice position, your husband is a professor, why are you talking about these issues? But when you believe in something, it is very hard to come back from it," says Maha.

In March 2013, he was charged with 11 offences in the terrorism court, including "inciting public opinions against the government by accusations of human rights violations".

Maha describes her husband as a man of considerable integrity and strength. Despite the horrors of Al Hayer prison, he still has spirit: 

"I get strength from him... you can't believe how strong he is."  

Thousands of prisoners of conscience

Nukhaifi and Qahtani are not alone in sacrificing self-preservation for change. 

In 2013, ALQST estimated there were 30,000 prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia. Among them are Sunnis and Shias, rich and poor.

Yayha al-Assiri is ALQST's co-founder. "The government doesn't care about religion," he says, "they just care [about] who is with us, who is against us?"

In June 2018, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights, reported to the UN Human Rights Council that Saudi Arabia had misused broad counter terrorism laws to punish peaceful dissidents.

The UN has concluded that Qahtani's imprisonment is arbitrary and that he should be released immediately. An opinion is yet to adopted regarding Nukhaifi. 

"Who would care about the story of poor Issa?" Nukhaifi asked me, not long before his arrest.   


Madeleine Miller is an Australian freelance journalist and policy lawyer.

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