Saudi Arabia: Alkarama requests the urgent intervention of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to secure the immediate release of Safar Al Hawali
On 12 October 2020, Alkarama submitted a complaint to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on behalf of 70-years-old religious scholar Safar bin Abdulrahman Al Hawali. This prominent scholar is arbitrarily detained since 12 July 2018 after publishing a book in which he criticised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s international policy choices and issued recommendations to his attention. His four sons, and his brother, were arrested by State Security forces as a form of reprisal and further intimidation. Since his arrest, he has been denied appropriate care in spite of his speech impairment and extremely fragile health state and denied access to the outside world.
Reprisals against Al Hawali and his family for his criticism of the Crown Prince
Mr Al Hawali is a prominent religious scholar and a figure of the Saudi al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (which can be translated as “Islamic Awakening”), or Sahwa movement. Contemporary thinkers of this movement, which emerged back in the 1950s, have overtly criticised Crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman over his policies. The Sahwa movement has been targeted by the crackdown on freedom of expression imposed by the Crown Prince and other scholars from the Sahwa movement have been arrested including reformist Salman Al Awdah.
This continuing crackdown on peaceful criticism in the country has been condemned by Human Right Council member States, in March 2019, September 2019, and then again in September 2020. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s candidacy to the Human Rights Council has been rejected by UN member states during the October 2020 elections.
Alkarama firmly believes that his arrest, as well as the arrest of his brother and sons, to be a direct consequence of his criticism of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who effectively leads the country. Safar Al Hawali was arrested on 12 July 2018, shortly after publishing a book, called “Muslims and the Western Civilisation”, in which he criticised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s international policy choices and issued recommendations to his attention. Few days before the arrest, the royal authorities have asked him to publicly reverse his position and express his support to the Crown Prince. They also requested his sons and brother to publicly denounce Mr Al Hawali’s book and positions. All these requests were rejected by Mr Al Hawali and his relatives who expressed their refusals to comply.
Continued incommunicado detention of Mr Al Hawali and denial of reasonable accommodation
On the morning of 12 July 2018, State Security Forces stormed Mr Al Hawali’s house and after searching the place, Mr Al Hawali and his 34-year-old son, Ibrahim, were blindfolded and taken away to an unknown location. The forces did not present any arrest or search warrant and did not explain the reasons for the arrests. However, they brought an ambulance along with them to proceed to the arrest of Mr Al Hawali, knowing that his health state was extremely fragile and that his mobility skills were severely impaired. Following his arrest Safar Al Hawali was kept in a secret location and no information as given to his family as per his fate and whereabouts, putting him in a state of enforced disappearance.
This ill-treatment is even crueller given that Mr Al Hawali suffered from repeated brain stroke that resulted in a permanent speech impairment which makes it impossible for him to speak and be understood. He also suffers from a broken pelvis as well as a renal failure that require constant medical care. Mr Al Hawali’s health conditions have severely deteriorated right after his arrest. Despite his disability, old age and fragile health, he has since been denied medical care and is held incommunicado.
Since his arrest, Mr Hawali has had very few opportunities to be in contact with his family. Due to his severe speech impairment, he cannot communicate through telephone calls. The authorities have taken no measures whatsoever to facilitate the communication of Mr Al Hawali with his family and a legal counsel. Since his arrest, the State security prosecution has allowed family visits on a sporadic and arbitrary basis. His family was denied visits from early February 2020 to early October 2020 under the pretext of Covid-19 restrictions. Before the pandemic, they did not have regular access to him; and today, they do not know if and when they will be allowed to see him again.
As a form of punishment for his criticism of the Crown Prince, Safar Al Hawali is practically being left to die in detention, cut from the outside world and his loved ones, and living in fear of harassment and threats to his sons and brother. This would not be the first time that a political opponent passes away due to his conditions of detention and denial of medical care: on 23 April 2020, human rights defender Abdullah Al Hamid died in custody in similar inhumane circumstances.
Alkarama’s urgent requests in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic
Mr Al Hawali’s life is under imminent, serious and irreversible threat as older adults are at a significantly increased risk of developing a severe disease following infection from COVID-19. UN experts have warned that “widespread community transmission of Covid-19 within a correctional institution is likely to result in a disproportionately high Covid-19 mortality rate”. Furthermore, he is a person with a disability with pre-existing health conditions including chronic kidney failure that make him more susceptible to contracting the virus, experiencing more severe symptoms upon infection, leading to elevated levels of death.
Several UN experts and international institutions have called upon states to “[u]ndertake the immediate, unconditional release of all prisoners whose incarceration is illegal or arbitrary under international law, including all children, prisoners of conscience, religious prisoners as well as political prisoners”. Similar guidelines have been issued by the Interagency Standing Committee – composed on representatives of the World Health Organisation and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – called on public authorities to take immediate steps to ensure that the release of individuals in priority of “persons with underlying health conditions (..) and those detained for offences not recognized under international law, should be prioritized”.
Considering the urgency of Mr Al Hawali’s case in the current pandemic, and the circumstances of his arrest and detention, Alkarama requested the CRPD to demand his immediate release as an emergency measure from Saudi Arabia. Lastly, Alkarama also requested the Committee to address the issue of reprisals against Mr Al Hawali and his family directly with the authorities. Under its conventional obligations, Saudi Arabia must immediately release Safar Al Hawali and his family members and stop all forms of harassment and intimidations against them.