Saudi Arabia: UN experts on disability condemn the authorities for the arbitrary detention of scholar Safar Al Hawali, call for his release and for an end to the reprisals against his family

Safar Al Hawali and three of his sons

“The prolonged solitary confinement of religious scholar and critic Safar bin Abdulrahman al-Hawali without trial and necessary accommodations for his disability constituted serious violations, including arbitrary detention and torture or ill-treatment,” said the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in a statement dated 15 May 2024. 

This press release comes as the CRPD experts reached a decision on the complaint against Saudi Arabia filed by Alkarama on 12 October 2020 on behalf of the 76-year-old religious scholar . This binding decision is an important step in the campaign for the release of Safar Al Hawali, after several complaints have been submitted to the UN human rights mechanisms detailing the persecution and reprisals to which the scholar and his family members have been subjected.  

In the Committee’s statement, UN expert Markus Schäfer said: “Mr al-Hawali has been subjected to a wide range of human rights abuses over the past six years, involving enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, denial of the right to due process, deprivation of the right to health, as well as acts of torture or inhuman treatment”.

Al Hawali was arrested in July 2018 as punishment for his peaceful criticism of the crown prince. Now 76, he suffers from permanent disabilities caused by strokes which have affected his ability to communicate, move, and care for himself. He also suffers from chronic verbal apraxia, which prevents him from using his facial muscles to speak and understand. He is unable to move independently and his pelvic fracture and kidney failure require regular medical attention.

Since his arrest, he has been held in solitary confinement and regularly cut off from the outside world for long periods, depriving him of legal and family support. Today, there is no end in sight to his arbitrary detention; after more than six years, his case remains 'under review' according to the authorities. Alkaram drew the attention of the experts to the fact that the scholar is being held in de facto indefinite pre-trial detention without any care, which amounts to a slow-motion execution. 

“The authorities' treatment of Mr. Al-Hawali, as well as the delay in recognizing his whereabouts and judicial delay, are inappropriate, unjustified, and unreasonable," said Mr. Schaeffer. The Committee therefore considered that Mr. Al-Hawali had been subjected to enforced disappearance and that his detention had been arbitrary.

The Committee requested Saudi Arabia to urgently review Mr. Al-Hawali's case to release him or at the very least to ensure a fair and public trial in accordance with international standards. Mr. Schaeffer said the Committee also asked the State party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to immediately stop any act of reprisal against Mr al-Hawali and his relatives, adding that “civic space for criticism of State institutions is a fundamental pillar for a democratic society”.

A long record of persecution

Safar Al Hawali is a well-known religious scholar and a member of the Saudi Sahwa movement (or Islamic Awakening). Modern intellectuals involved in this movement, which emerged in the fifties, have openly criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his policies. The Sahwa movement was targeted in the context of the crown prince's crackdown on freedom of expression against other scholars as well, including well-known reformist figure Salman al Odah.

Safar Al Hawali, has been arbitrarily detained since 12 July 2018 after publishing a book criticising and recommending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's international policy choices.Safar Al Hawali has been arbitrarily detained since 12 July 2018 after publishing a book criticising and recommending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's international policy choices.

Safar Al Hawali, his sons Abdullah, Abdulrahman, Ibrahim and Abdulrahim, as well as, his brother Saadallah were all arrested by the authorities between 11 and 13 July. The scholar's relatives were collectively punished by being prosecuted by the Specialised Criminal Court for refusing to denounce his political and religious views.

In early 2023, the Saudi Court of Appeal increased the prison sentences of several of Al-Hawali's relatives in retaliation for their continued support of the prisoner of conscience. The Court of Appeal decided to increase the sentence of Saadallah Al-Hawali, Dr Safar Al-Hawali's brother, from 4 years to 14 years. It also decided to increase the sentences of Al-Hawali's sons Abdul Rahman Al-Hawali from 7 years to 17 years, Abdullah Al-Hawali from 6 years to 16 years, and Abdul Rahim Al-Hawali from 6 years to 15 years.

“By imposing harsher penalties at the appellate court, the Saudi authorities aim to deter victims of unfair trials before the Specialised Criminal Court from exercising their right to appeal, as part of a systematic policy of punishing any form of criticism of the royal authorities”, said Alkarama's director, Rachid Mesli. “Since the courts are under the direct control of the royal authorities, an appeal against a decision of the SCC is essentially an appeal against a decision of the ruler, hence the heavier sentences to punish the affront”.

Continuous Saudi refusal to comply with UN requests for release

Since the arrest of the scholar and his relatives, Alkarama has submitted numerous complaints and urgent appeals which led UN experts to request repeatedly his urgent release.

While the CRPD, requested as an urgent measure the immediate release of Safar Al Hawali on repeated occasions since the beginning of the procedure, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) issued an Opinion, in June 2023 the WGAD experts called for the immediate release of the scholar and urged the Government “to ensure that Mr. Al-Hawali’s relatives do not suffer any reprisals for his activities or for the exercise of their own rights”.

The WGAD experts also said that they were "gravely concerned that Mr. Al-Hawali remains in detention over four years after his arrest, in particular as he is a person with a disability". The experts stressed that since his arrest he has been denied regular contact with his family and has not had access to legal representation. They, therefore, urged the authorities "to take measures to facilitate communication between Mr. Al-Hawali and his family and legal counsel".

By filing a complaint with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Alkarama referred the case to the strongest procedure available at the UN level, as Saudi Arabia has accepted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and individual complaints can be heard. When particularly vulnerable persons are victims of arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment, the victim's representatives can appeal for urgent intervention through “emergency measures”, given the victim's urgent situation.

Under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Saudi authorities can be required to take urgent measures even before the facts of the case have been examined. Under Article 4 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities may require the State party to take interim measures to prevent irreparable harm to the author if his detention continues while the case is under consideration by the Committee.

On this basis, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requested that the Saudi authorities "arrange for the immediate release of al-Hawali. Such release must ensure his safety and that all precautions are taken to avoid any potential harm. The country must also ensure that Safar Al Hawali receives proper medical care at home or in another medical facility of his choice.

With this decision, Alkarama will continue to put pressure on the Saudi authorities for the release of Safar Al Hawali, who is now recognised as a person with a disability in need of special care, but also as a victim of arbitrary detention as a form of punishment for merely peacefully expressing his views.