Saudi Arabia: Mohammad Al Otaibi sentenced to 14 years in prison for peaceful human rights activism


On April 10, 2018, Alkarama solicited the intervention of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) on behalf of Saudi human rights defender Mohammad Abdullah Al Otaibi, requesting that the UN experts issue a decision calling for his immediate release.

On January 25, 2018, as a result of making use of his fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association, Al Otaibi was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment following a grossly unfair trial.

Previous arrest and human rights activism

Al Otaibi had previously been arrested in 2009 for planning a demonstration against the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Al Otaibi was detained without charge and without any legal proceedings for three years. Alkarama submitted his case to the WGAD, which then issued Opinion No. 33/2011 declaring Al Otaibi’s detention arbitrary. However, despite the WGAD’s opinion, Al Otaibi was not released until June 2012.

On April 3, 2013, Al Otaibi and his colleague Abdullah Al Atawi were among a group of Saudi activists who announced the creation of a new human rights association, the Union for Human Rights, which aimed to “spread and defend the culture of human rights, enforce its principles and values, and promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant international covenants and charters.”

Weeks after the establishment of the Union for Human Rights, the Public Prosecution launched a criminal investigation against members of the group, and officially ordered them to halt their activities on May 4, 2013.

Latest detention and sentencing

On October 30, 2016, Al Otaibi was summoned before the Specialised Criminal Court, a jurisdiction competent to try cases of terrorism and known for its gross violations of international fair trial standards.

He was charged with, among other things, “illegally founding an association” and “spreading chaos and stirring up public opinion against the state” by “preparing, signing and publishing statements on the internet that are harmful to the reputation of the Kingdom and of its judicial and security institutions, with the intention of dividing national unity, damaging the reputation of the state, its security and stability”.

Due to the fact that Saudi Arabia’s legal system lacks a codified Penal Code, Al Otaibi has also been charged under article 6 of the Cybercrime Law. The Cybercrime Law of 2007 has been increasingly used to silence those who express criticism on social media, with article 6 stipulating that that individuals can be handed a five-year prison sentence for “publishing material impinging public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy”.

Fearing that he may be prosecuted as a result of his peaceful human rights activism, on March 30, 2017, Al Otaibi fled to Qatar, where he was able to obtain UN refugee status, after which he was supposed to be resettled in Norway as part of the UN protection program. However, he was arrested on his way to Oslo on May 24, 2017, at the Hamad International Airport in Doha by Qatari security forces, and then forcibly deported to Saudi Arabia on May 28, 2017.

Al Otaibi was arrested upon arrival in Riyadh by officers of the General Directorate of Investigation, and transferred to Dammam prison without being shown an arrest warrant. He was held incommunicado for more than two weeks, and was only allowed to call his family for the first time on June 12 despite his relatives’ repeated requests to the Saudi authorities. During this period, he was also denied access to medical care. Al Otaibi was held in solitary confinement for three months and denied access to a lawyer throughout the investigation and up until the beginning of trial.

Al Otaibi was not brought before a judicial authority until July 12, 2017 – almost 50 days after his arrest – when the Specialised Criminal Court resumed the proceedings against him. On January 25, 2018, the court deliberated in a closed hearing and sentenced Al Otaibi to 14 years in prison under the aforementioned charges. Al Otaibi officially appealed his sentence on February 22, 2018, but no date has yet been set for a first hearing.

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