US ‘Concerned’ About Activists Jail Sentences, Rights Groups Urge Saudi Government to Release Them

The United States on Monday said it was “concerned” about the jail sentences handed down by a Saudi court to two prominent human rights activists in the country. Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed were Saturday sentenced to at least 10 years in jail for setting up an unlicensed human rights organization.

“We are concerned that these two very prominent Saudi human rights activists have been sentenced to prison,” said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokesperson. Asked if the issue was raised during Secretary of State John Kerry recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Nuland said “the issues of human rights and reform progress in Saudi were obviously discussed, as they always are when we are there.”

Kerry’s visit was followed by another visit by US Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. who arrived to Riyadh on the same day of the activists trial and met Crown Prince Salman and other Saudi officials, including Justice Minister Mohammed al-Eisa. Holder held a press conference at the US Embassy on Sunday but it appears that he was not asked by the trial.

International human rights groups have criticized the jailing of al-Qahtani and al-Hamed, called the trial “politically motived,” and urged the Saudi government to release them.

“This is simply an outrageous case, which shows the extremes Saudi authorities are prepared to go to silence moderate advocates of reform and greater respect for human rights”, said Eric Goldstein, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. In a statement published Monday, human rights watchdog Amnesty International called the jail sentences “yet another stain on the country’s record when it comes to attacking free expression.” Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty, said al-Qahtani and al-Hamed “have been imprisoned solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association and are therefore prisoners of conscience who should be released immediately and unconditionally.”

There was no comment from the Saudi National Society of Human Rights, but many Saudis took to Twitter to express their reaction to the trial. Blogger Eman al-Nafjan has translated tweets by some influential Saudi Twitter users who commented on the trial. Lawyer Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, for instance, said the court ruling “leaves no room for doubt that the judiciary is politicized and is not independent.”