JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — In October, a judge in Saudi Arabia sentenced me to three months in prison simply because I stood with victims of my country’s flawed and discriminatory criminal justice system.
The legal system is based on uncodified principles of Islamic law, which leaves judges largely free to decide what actions, in their view, are crimes, as well as the appropriate punishments. I believe that the Interior Ministry actively encourages religious extremism and intolerance among the judiciary, recognizing that judges with these views are far more willing to convict human rights and civil society advocates of vague religious and social offenses.
One of the principal causes of my conviction was my reaction to the unfair trial of 16 men known as the “Jiddah reformers,” nine of whom were trying to set up a human-rights organization. Prosecutors castigated them as extremists and terrorists, and a judge sentenced all of them to lengthy jail terms. I signed a statement in 2012 criticizing the convictions and calling for the men’s release.
The Saudi government allows no public dissent. We who have challenged government policies or social taboos know that we will face Saudi “justice” sooner or later.
I am also on trial before Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, the Specialized Criminal Court, on charges that include “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “inflaming public opinion against the ruler.” All of the evidence against me stems from my peaceful activism. If convicted, I could be sentenced to years in prison.
As a human-rights activist, I have helped many victims of injustice battle for their rights in Saudi courts, including Samar Badawi, whom I helped escape years of physical and emotional abuse by her father. Her father had her jailed for “parental disobedience” after she fled to a women’s shelter. I got Samar out of the shelter and to safety, and we later married.
In early 2012, as I was leaving for a fellowship in the United States, authorities at the Jiddah airport wouldn’t let me board the plane, saying that I had been barred from foreign travel. Prosecutors later told me that I would be facing charges for a variety of vague and spurious offenses, including “insulting the judiciary” and “distorting the reputation of the kingdom.” At no point have prosecutors alleged that I have committed any act an ordinary person would understand to be criminal behavior.
The outcome of my trial before the terrorism tribunal is most likely predetermined, as judicial outcomes often are in Saudi Arabia. As my trials have progressed, I have watched as dozens of political and human-rights activists, many of them friends, faced an all-out assault by Saudi Arabia’s flawed and arbitrary criminal justice system. Among them are Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani, who are serving 11- and 10-year jail sentences, respectively, merely for peacefully calling for political and human-rights reforms.
I will appeal my verdict, and if the appeals court upholds the ruling I intend to serve the sentence. Maybe I’ll get a pardon, maybe not.
What is certain, though, is that the rules of the game are changing, and the authorities know it. Empowered by new forms of communication and dissent, particularly social media, ordinary Saudis are voicing opposition to government oppression in record numbers.
Interior Ministry officials think they can end this fledgling activism simply by throwing the most prominent activists in prison for long periods, but we’ve already progressed beyond that point. Saudi citizens aren’t nearly as isolated as they once were, and more are learning every day how their government fails to ensure the most basic degree of justice in society.
It’s increasingly hard for many Saudis to stomach that someone like me, a peaceful activist, could be sentenced to a long jail term for, in part, helping my wife escape terrible abuse, while her father, who committed the abuse, walks free.
I don’t know what will happen in the next few months, but one thing is certain: Whether I go to jail or not, I will continue to work for those who, like me, have been caught in the harsh clutches of my country’s arbitrary and cruel justice system.
Waleed Abulkhair is a human-rights activist based in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.