1 September 2012 at 9 a.m. in Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court
Rows of supporters formed outside the Riyadh courtroom as they waited for the arrival of activists Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, co-founders of the Saudi Political and Civil Rights Association (ACPRA). Upon their entrance to the courthouse, supporters shook their hands and exchanged encouraging smiles. The presence of around fifty people, all with cell phones in hand, was to mark this event as one of the most public trials of activists held in Saudi Arabia thus far.
Among the supporters were prominent Saudi political and intellectual figures such as Nawaf al-Qudaimi, Mohammed al-Abdulkarim, Abdullah al-Saed, Sultan al-Ajmi, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, and Abdulkarim al-Khudar. A few prominent lawyers such as Abdulaziz al-Hesan and judges like Shaykh Salman al-Rashoudi had also made their way to the courthouse to express their solidarity. In addition to the list of famous activists, there were also numerous family members of illegally detained Saudi citizens. They were ready to provide testimonies on the Saudi secret security’s crimes against their kin, which would assist in disproving charges made against the accused activists who had documented such rights violations.
All sat outside the courtroom in anticipation. Activists Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid were photographed talking to each other as they waited for the judge to arrive and their trial to begin.
Finally, the judge arrived and the trial started with Mohammad al-Qahtani giving his statement of defense. The courtroom was full; most had to stand as they listened intently. Al-Qahtani’s statement opened with condemnations of the human and civil rights violations in Saudi Arabia, referencing recent cases such as that of ACPRA member Saleh al-Ashwan, arrested in July, and co-founder of ACPRA, Mohammed al-Bajadi, sentenced in March to four years in prison, both for their involvement in civil rights activism. Mohammad al-Qahtani then addressed the charge made against him, that his own political activism impedes the country’s developments: “The corrupt are those who have brought our development to a halt!” He then accused the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution of being an accessory to the secret security’s crimes against illegally detained citizens, adding that further evidence of this has been made available to the court, as many of the detainees’ families were willing to testify, and some were already present in the courtroom.
“We must stop leading the youth into the flames of proxy wars, and then throwing them into jail cells”, explained al-Qahtani. Many observers noticed that by this time the judge was acting indifferent to the activist’s statements, forcing tired yawns to appear uninterested. He then interrupted al-Qahtani, asking him if he was simply rambling on, or if this was supposed to be part of his statement of defense, despite it being apparent that al-Qahtani was in fact reading from prepared documents that he had brought with him. The judge then allowed Al-Qahtani to continue, only to interrupt him a second time with the ring of his cell phone.
Meanwhile, the heat in the tiny courtroom was rising, noted Saudi journalist Iman al-Qahtani. A court officer asked her to refrain from taking pictures, but another supporter, Ibrahim al-Twejry, was able to take one of the accused activist Abdullah al-Hamid. Al-Hamid had decided to sit on the floor to avoid the crowdedness of the room, and laxly fanned himself with papers that contained the criminal charges against him.
Al-Qahtani concluded his statement of defense by claiming that the charges raised against him were of malicious intent. He then requested that witness testimonies be permissible evidence to the court, since they served as supporting evidence of ACPRA claims regarding the secret security’s rights violations. The judge, Hamad al-Omar, mockingly replied, “How could you prove that the charges against you were of malicious intent? All you have done is read fifteen pages to me, your statement of defense is an insufficient response to the claims put forth against you.” To which al-Qahtani flatly responded, “Actually, it was twenty-five pages.”
At this point, the judge announced that al-Qahtani’s statement of defense was sufficiently reviewed by the court and found to be “an inadequate, ill-prepared response to the charges” and he required a revised version be submitted by 9 a.m. the following day. The judge asked the second accused activist, Abdullah al-Hamid, to step forward to begin his statement of defense in response to the charges against him, the most pressing one being his involvement, along with al-Qahtani, in ACPRA and that he had published a document titled “Freedom of Protest Combats Governmental Oppression: 20 Suggestions to Successfully Protest.” The judge chastised Abdullah al-Hamid as he approached the bench, “No peaceful jihad [meaning: peaceful protests] is permissible without the permission of the ruler.” Journalist Iman al-Qahtani observed the elder activist to be covered in sweat, the courtroom’s physical heat seemed to increase simultaneously with the tension forming between the judge and the accused activists.
Abdullah Al-Hamid began his statement of defense by answering the judge’s earlier question directed to al-Qahtani: “We know the charges were raised against us with malicious intent because we filed a complaint against the Minister of Interior himself. It would have been more transparent of him [previous head of MOI] to have filed these charges against us under his own name, rather than under the guise of governmental institutions.” The activist then began to criticize the court itself: “You are both prosecutor and judge. You say peaceful political protest is only legitimate with permission of the ruler, so how can you tell me that you are an independent judge if you still acknowledge the concept of a supreme ruler? And if this were an independent court, why was it silent when citizens were illegally arrested and tortured by that same supreme ruler who now wants to silence ACPRA for documenting such violations? You cannot stop rights activists. They are like weeds; when you pull out a few, more grow back stronger and thicker. In fact, we are in the process of publishing another document titled “a thousand testimonies of human rights violations” and it will be completed and released to the public regardless of whether we personally are detained or not. Do not underestimate the youth, there are many ready to promote justice. And the government cannot detain them all.”
The judge dismissively asked al-Hamid: “Why don’t you just retire to a mosque in your old age?” Al-Hamid replied: “And give up the greatest form of jihad—speaking a just word before a tyrant?” After which he continued his critique of the court, “if the judiciary is not independent, it will only function as a symbol of oppression. How could charges of impeding development be entertained by a court that is fully aware that those accused of such have no power to do so? A just judicial system is the true basis of development, stability, and the mark of a civilized state.” The judge demanded al-Hamid respect him as a judge, and reminded him that he was restraining himself in respect of the activist’s old age. Al-Hamid then claimed that the judge has no legitimacy worthy of his respect, describing him as merely a judicial representative of the ruler’s will. The judge intervened, “Your words are repetitive and they do not address the charges against you” and ordered that only the accused activists themselves and their lawyers be allowed to attend future court sessions, citing the public supporters’ violation of the no-cell phone rule for this change in the courtroom’s attendance policy.
Accused activist al-Hamid argued, “You are just trying to intimidate us! Why don’t you keep our future sessions open to the public, and allow pictures to be taken? Why not even provide chairs for supporters who decide to come? You cannot call yourself an independent judge when you are susceptible to governmental pressure. A secret trial cannot be fair; justice will not be reached in this case. A political defendant is only protected as much as he is publically seen, holding our sessions secretly is a violation of our rights.” Al-Hamid then took the opportunity to criticize the judge’s earlier requirement that all present supporters’ names and identification numbers be recorded, claiming that this too was a form of intimidation and an outright violation of their privacy. Finally, he added, “And I apologize if my earlier words hurt your feelings, but the only real judge is Allah.” The judge replied by announcing that al-Hamid’s statement of defense was an incomplete response to the charges against him and required a revised version to be submitted to the court, along with al-Qahtani’s, the next day. He then told al-Hamid, “Don’t think that your taunting words affected me at all.”
Iman al-Qahtani pointed out that she was confused by the judge’s “changed attendance policy,” since this court session had not been open to the public to begin with. Rather, the supporters had made their way into the courtroom without permission. The restriction will likely be more strongly enforced in the next sessions, as this first one ended with supporters’ dismissal by the judge, under threat of arrest if they do not comply. Just before leaving the courtroom, however, an officer asked Iman al-Qahtani, “Why are you writing?” She boldly answered, “Because this was an open trial—and I am a journalist”.
After being dismissed, supporters remained outside the courtroom until the activists joined them shortly after, their cell phone batteries were dying and their Twitter feeds fell silent. The rest of Saudi Arabia’s Twittersphere did not, however, as tweets flooded a hashtag titled “Trial of al-Hamid and al-Qahtani”. Most were consumed by a mix of awe at the courageous statements given by both activists, along with anger at the judge’s attitude and disbelief at the ludicrous charges against the activists. One user in particular, Ahmed al-Massary, commented, “They may have thought only fifty people were in the courtroom, but fifty thousand of us were in attendance [online]. This is how flakes turn to snowballs”. Also, a link to a scanned copy of the activists’ official charges began circulating. This link was quickly blocked in Saudi, which users like Tariq al-Haydar found this to be truly ironic, as one of the written charges against the activists had read, “Falsely accusing the Saudi government of running a police state.”
[This post aims to serve as a reiteration of the trial’s events in order to record an important moment in Saudi’s Civil Rights Movement. The majority of its content was provided by first-hand accounts and live-tweets from Saudi journalist, Iman al-Qahtani, and activist Sultan al-Ajmi. Other info/image sources include Nawaf al-Qudaimi, Abdullah al-Saed, Omar al-Saed, Mamdouh al-Zaidi, Abdullah al-Mataq, and Ibrahim al-Twayjrey. This post first appeared here.]