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Opinion

Saudi Arabia vs. China: America can't play favorites with human rights

While the US has been quick to condemn human rights violations in China and rally behind persecuted activists there, President Obama has seemed hesitant to do the same with Saudi Arabia and its persecution of human rights activist Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani.

By Andrew Fitzgerald / March 28, 2013

Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, one of Saudi Arabia's most outspoken human rights activists (pictured here on May 9, 2012) was sentenced to 10 years in prison on March 9. Op-ed contributor Andrew Fitzgerald says 'the Obama administration must choose whether it supports universal rights or not – and to what degree it is willing to voice and meaningfully show that support.'

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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Brooklyn, N.Y.

I remember that, even among members of Saudi Arabia’s feminist movement, human rights activist Dr. Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani ­stood out for his courageous actions and seemingly radical ideas.

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Dr. Qahtani is a cofounder of The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (known as ACPRA). I met him on my trip to the kingdom in April and May of 2012, when he told our group of college students and our professor how ACPRA seeks to document and challenge human rights abuses including torture and indefinite detention without trial.

Not long after I returned to the United States, Qahtani, along with several other ACPRA activists, were put on trial for “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and running an unlicensed political organization. This did not quiet Qahtani’s activism or outspokenness, though. He used the forum of the court to condemn the monarchy, leading Foreign Policy magazine to name him no. 47 of its Top 100 Global Thinkers “for putting Saudi Arabia on trial.”

But on March 9th, Qahtani and fellow activist Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to 10 years and 5 years in prison respectively for charges including sedition and giving inaccurate information to foreign media. ACPRA was ordered disbanded, and its property confiscated.

What is also disturbing is the Obama administration’s relative silence throughout the trial and in the aftermath of Qahtani’s conviction. While the US has been quick to condemn human rights violations in China and rally behind persecuted activists there, President Obama has seemed hesitant to do the same regarding Saudi Arabia.

If the Obama administration wants to use the global movement for democracy and human rights as a rhetorical and diplomatic tool, it needs to apply equal criticism not only to its rivals but to its own policies and the policies of its allies as well.

On March 14, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom did finally issue a statement calling for Saudi Arabia to release Qahtani and Dr. Hamid from prison “immediately and unconditionally.” But during the trial, the Obama administration made no public comment.

At a State Department press briefing the Monday after Qahtani’s conviction, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was pressed as to whether Secretary of State John Kerry had discussed the trial during his visit to Saudi Arabia days earlier. Ms. Nuland said the sentences came down “after we had already left Saudi Arabia.” She then expressed “concern” at the sentence adding, “we always make strong representations for human rights activists wherever we are around the world.”

She concluded that the US maintains “an ongoing and robust dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a wide range of political reform issues, including human rights for individuals.” She then moved on to the next question.

Such a guarded response stands in stark contrast to Washington’s repeated criticisms of China for its human rights abuses, and the rhetoric the Obama administration uses about universal rights and freedom in presidential speeches. In his second inaugural address President Obama said: “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

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