Saudi Arabia’s decision this weekend to sentence two of the country’s most prominent human rights activists to 10 and 11 years in prison, respectively, has sparked a surge of discontent among the kingdom's reformers. In just one indication, an economist-blogger’s poll on Twitter drew 10,000 responses, 85 percent of them opposed to the decision.
While many activists appear undeterred, the sentencing of Mohammad al-Qahtani, together with that of Abdullah al-Hamid, cofounders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), represents a significant step backward in reform efforts.
The small opening for reform created by King Abdullah when he took over in 2005 has been gradually closing since the Arab Spring, says Prof. Gregory Gause, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont.
"The last two years have seen a closing of what had been a very small opening of what had been acceptable discourse in Saudi Arabia," says Professor Gause, who chairs UVM's political science department. "I do think it’s a signal … it’s part of the post-Arab Spring Saudi crackdown."
On March 9, a judge sentenced Mr. Hamid to 11 years in prison and Mr. Qahtani to 10 years, and also ordered ACPRA to be shut down immediately and its property confiscated. Qahtani, one of 11 activists who established the organization in 2009, had served as head of the organization since 2011 and was recently ranked 47th on Foreign Policy’s 100 Top Global Thinkers list.
ACPRA lobbied hard against the moral and financial corruption of the government and particularly its treatment of political prisoners, whose numbers have been estimated by some to be as high as 30,000. Qahtani was particularly bold in questioning the legitimacy of the government, and even called for the Interior Minister, the crown prince, to be dismissed from his job.
He and Hamid were charged with “breaking allegiance to the ruler and his successor” and “trying to impede the country’s developments.” They have 30 days to launch an appeal.
Qahtani knew he was walking on thin ice, but when this reporter interviewed him in May 2012, he insisted the imperative for reform outweighed the threat of prison.
"I take it as a moral responsibility," said Qahtani at the time. "It's a very difficult time…. But believe me, we can weather it.
"Maybe in 10, 20 years we can look in the eyes of our kids and say, look, we tried," he added.
Hamid has also remained determined, even optimistic.
“To my brothers who are pessimist and pitiful about the ACPRA trial: If we get imprisoned, it’s a huge victory for the project and from prisons candles are lit,” tweeted Hamid the night before he was sentenced.
While Qahtani is well-known internationally, Hamid, who has been jailed previously, is perhaps better known in Saudi. But neither of them have the same level of influence as some Islamists in Saudi, and thus they don't pose a major threat to the government, says Gause.
"In both these cases, it’s interesting that the regime has chosen to make a symbol of these guys because they aren’t a big threat, they don’t have a huge following," he says. "The blowback is more international."
But some influential Islamists appear to be siding with the two sentenced dissidents. Salman al-Oudah, a salafi sheikh with more than 1 million followers on Twitter who has spent some time in jail himself, responded to the sentencing by tweeting that “imprisonments and sacrifices only ingrain ideas, draw people together,” according to a translation by prominent Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan (@Saudiwoman).
Islam and democracy
According to Global Voices, which has been running an in-depth report on the trial of Qahtani and Hamid, the judge said Saturday that Al Qaeda and ACPRA are “two sides of the same coin.” The report quoted a tweet from Mohammad al-Abdualkreem that gets to the ideological tension behind the case: “The judge concluded that the social contract theory is invalid and contradicts with the Muslim faith, and that coercive ruling, hereditary monarchy and appointment are fundamental to Islamic practice.”
But that view is increasingly being challenged. Sheikh al-Oudah, for example, has firmly stated that Islam and democracy are indeed compatible.
“To debate and consult the citizen in decisions and policies ... [and] elections, I think Islam gave us that sort of democracy – all caliphs were elected by their people,” he told a small group of journalists – including this reporter – with the International Reporting Project during an interview at his Jeddah home last year.
While loath to allow someone like Qahtani to continue his criticism unchecked, Saudi appears at least somewhat responsive to the changes afoot. For example, Qahtani and Hamid’s trials were supposed to be held in secret, but their lobbying resulted in a public trial. On Saturday, more than 130 supporters were in attendance, as well as major news outlets such as Al Jazeera, according to the Global Voices report.
To be sure though, Saudi Arabia remains one of the world's wealthiest and and most powerful monarchies – and it is still strongly backed by the United States, despite its poor human rights record. It is highly unlikely that it will come tumbling down as a result of this case or anything else in the next week, month, or even year.
"To me the big issue here is – can you get an issue where you get these more 'liberal' technocratic types and long-bearded people and Shia all together on something in Saudi area," says Gause. "The thing that brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt is that islamists, secularists, liberalists, and leftists could all get behind, 'We want this regime to fall,' and I don’t see that in Saudi."