Saudi Arabia: the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ask the Saudi authorities 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. In this complaint, Alkarama argued that 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. Moreover, given the arbitrariness of his detention, Alkarama requested the CRPD to urgently demand his immediate release. In response to this request, on 6 November 2020, the CRPD requested multiple measures to be taken by the Saudi authorities in order to avoid any irreparable harm to Safar Al Hawali, including his immediate release.

Background of the case: 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.

Safar Al Hawali was arrested on the morning of 12 July 2018, when 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Alkarama’s urgent requests in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic

In view of these facts and considering that Safar Al Hawali’s state of health constitute a disability that does not allow him to speak or take care of himself, Alkarama decided to refer the case to the CRPD.

The complaint highlighted that 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”. Several UN experts and international institutions have issued guidelines and  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”.

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.

What Alkarama expects from the CRPD and the Saudi authorities

By submitting a complaint to the CRPD, Alkarama referred the case to the strongest procedure available, as Saudi Arabia accepted the CRPD to hear individual complaints. When particularly vulnerable people are victim of arbitrary detention and mistreatment, representatives of the victim can raise the urgency of his/situation through “emergency measures.”

These measures are requested by the CRPD to the Saudi authorities as matter of urgency and before even considering the facts of the case. Under article 4 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities the CRPD can therefore request the State party to take interim measures in order to avoid any irreparable harm the author might suffer in case of his continued detention, while the case is under consideration by the Committee.

It is on this basis that the CRPD requested the Saudi authorities to, among other things “to arrange for his immediate release”. Such a release must ensure the safety of Mr Al Hawali and all precaution must be taken to avoid any contamination. Furthermore, the state should ensure that Safar Al Hawali has access to appropriate medical care at home or at any other medical institution he may choose. Alkarama will continue to exert pressure through international legal mechanisms until Mr Al Hawali and his family members are eventually released and free from persecution.