Saudi rights activist goes on open-ended hunger strike to protest prison conditions

Imprisoned prominent Saudi human rights campaigner Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani (Photo via Twitter)

Prominent Saudi human rights campaigner Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani has launched an open-ended hunger strike in protest against his harsh conditions at a notorious maximum-security detention center south of the capital, Riyadh. 

Maha al-Qahtani, the wife of the activist, wrote in a post published on her Twitter page on Monday that her husband had entered the ninth day of the strike due to the stress placed on him by authorities at al-Ha’ir Prison.

She said Qahtani, the co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), took the action in protest at being denied “the most basic rights,” adding that her husband held Mohammed bin Ali al-Asmari, director-general of prisons in Saudi Arabia, “fully responsible” for threats to his health and life. 

Qahtani was formerly an economics professor at the Institute of Diplomatic Affairs in the Saudi Foreign Ministry.

He was arrested in June 2012 as part of a wide crackdown on human rights advocates in the kingdom.

In March 2013, Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison on several charges related to his human rights work, including “using the internet to disseminate opinions, petitions, and statements against the government.” He was also given a 10-year travel ban to take effect upon his release.

Abdullah al-Hamid, his friend and fellow co-founder of ACPRA, was sentenced to 11 years in prison during the same trial. 

Hamid died on April 24 after suffering a stroke and falling into a coma. His death was described by activists as having been a result of “deliberate medical neglect” from Saudi prison authorities.

The London-based group ALQST, which is an independent non-governmental organization advocating human rights in Saudi Arabia, wrote in a post published on its official Twitter page in late July that journalist Aqel al-Bahili, writer Abdulaziz al-Dakhil and activist Sultan al-Ajami had all been detained after they offered condolences following Hamid’s death.

Similarly, distinguished Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has reportedly been subjected to torture at al-Ha’ir prison since being taken there in 2018. She was sentenced to five years and eight months in jail on Monday.

Renowned Saudi dissident Sheikh Salman al-Ouda is also being held behind bars in al-Ha’ir prison, which is housing an estimated 5,000 prisoners. He has routinely been denied medical treatment, according to his son.

The Arabic-language Saudi newspaper Okaz reported on September 4, 2018 that Saudi public prosecutors had charged Ouda on 37 counts, and even demanded his execution.

Saudi authorities detained the prominent Muslim scholar on September 7, 2018 and have been holding him in solitary confinement without charge or trial ever since. Officials have imposed travel bans on members of his family as well.

A family member told Human Rights Watch that the distinguished cleric was being held over his refusal to comply with an order by Saudi authorities to tweet a specific text to support the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar.

Saudi authorities have arrested dozens of activists, bloggers, intellectuals and others perceived as political opponents ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the kingdom’s de facto leader in 2017, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnations.

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