Saudi Activist Al-Bajady Released From Jail

Prominent Saudi activist Mohammad al-Bajady was released from jail, his relatives said on Tuesday morning. Family members of al-Bajady said on Twitter that he called them after he has left Hai’r prison in Riyadh and later posted photos of him:

Al-Bajady, a businessman from the central region of Qassim, is an activist well known for his work on cases of torture and arbitrary detention in Saudi Arabia. In 2009, he helped found the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), an unlicensed organization. Two co-founding members of ACPRA, Abdullah al-Hamed and Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, were sentenced to jail earlier this year.

The 36-year-old al-Bajady was arrested in March 2011 after taking part in a protest outside the Interior Ministry headquarters in Riyadh for the release of long-term detainees without trial. This was not the first time he was arrested. In September 2007 he was detained for 4 months without trial also for helping families of detainees to protest. He was released but he has been banned from travel since then, until he was arrested again in 2011.

Two years ago al-Bajady was put on trial in the Specialized Criminal Court that was originally established to try alleged terrorists. Human Rights Watch urged the Saudi government to abolish the court because it was seen as a tool to crack down on peaceful dissent.

“Trying Saudi political activists as terrorists merely because they question abuses of government power demonstrates the lengths the Saudi government will go to suppress dissent,” Christoph Wilcke, then senior Middle East researcher at HRW, said. “The trial of peaceful reformers in a terrorism court underlines the political nature of this court.”

The Saudi government accused al-Bajady of a series of charges including co-founding a human rights organization, speaking to foreign media to distort the image of the state and inciting the families of prisoners to protest. Al-Bajady, who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court, was also charged of possessing banned books and questioning the independence of the judiciary. On April 10, 2012, he was sentenced 4 years in jail followed by 5 years of travel ban.

ACPRA and international human rights groups condemned the sentence. Amnesty said the sentence “demonstrates a blatant disregard for his fundamental rights” and called on the government to release him.

Al-Bajady has engaged in several hunger strikes while in jail to protest maltreatment, ACPRA said. He was also banned from contacting his lawyer or family. On the second anniversary of his arrest in March of this year the group called on the government to free al-Bajady. “We demand his release, since his defense of human rights is no crime at all,” the group said in a statement.

Saudi activists on social media welcomed the release of al-Bajady and urged authorities to release other prisoners jailed in cases of political activism and free speech. Many of them mentioned Hamza Kashgari, a young writer who was arrested in February 2012 after posting some controversial tweets about Prophet Mohammed, saying they wish that he would be released from jail soon.

“Al-Bajady is an icon and a symbol for reformist democratic youth,” said Mohammed al-Rabeaa. “His release is a great joy and a victory for reform and activists in the path of civil peaceful action.”