“Even from prison, you can still light a candle”
Waleed Abu al-Khair began to practice law in Saudi Arabia in 2007. He quickly earned an international reputation as one of the most respected human rights lawyers in one of the world’s most repressive countries. Within a year he joined in a high profile critique of the ruling monarchy. He repeatedly and openly advocated for democracy. He controversially defended the human rights of women, dissidents, and prisoners targeted by the authorities. Before long, the government called his stands for human rights terrorism. They harassed him, surveilled him, shut down his social media and finally put him in prison, where he has remained since 2014. Even from prison, though, he refuses to back down and continues to publicly press for freedom and human rights. This is his story.
First, a bit about Saudi Arabia, which has been a close ally of the US since the 1940s. Saudi Arabia is tightly ruled by a hereditary monarchy and is a scary place to be a free human being, much less a human rights lawyer. Freedom House rates Saudi Arabia as one of the worst in the world in civil liberties and political rights. Torture is common, according to Amnesty International. The country ranks third globally, right behind North Korea, in denying freedom of the press, frequently arresting not only protestors but also those who report on protests. Human Rights Watch notes government authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest, try and convict peaceful dissidents. Recent “antiterrorism” laws allow the government to jail anyone who demands reform or engages in dissent.
Waleed Abu al-Khair was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1979. His family includes a number of judges and Imams. As a young man he memorized the Quran and graduated from King Abdulaziz University in 2003. He began to practice law in 2007. He set up his office with a well-known Saudi human rights lawyer, Essam Basrawi. Basrawi was one of ten people, known as the Jeddah reformists, who was arrested for trying to set up a human rights association.
Immediately upon starting his legal career, Abu al-Khair joined other activists and released a petition titled Parameters of the Constitutional Monarchy calling for the Saudi Royal Family to change the country’s rule from absolute monarchy to a democracy based on free elections. Within weeks, the government revoked his scholarship to study abroad.
Waleed Abu al-Khair founded the globally well-respected Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA) in 2008. Also in 2008, Abu al-Khair organized the country’s first 48 hour hunger strike for prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia which led to sit-ins and demonstrations. According to the BBC, activists report there are as many as 30,000 political prisoners in Saudi Arabia while the government says there are only 10,000.
In 2009, he became a defense lawyer for several of the “Jeddah reformists” who were arrested along with Basrawi after trying to establish a human rights organization. The same year he received his Masters of Jurisprudence from Yarmouk University in Jordan.
Abu al-Khair volunteered to represent Samar Badawi in 2010 after she had been jailed for “disobedience” of her father by, among other actions, fleeing to a woman’s shelter to avoid 15 years of his abuse. According to Human Rights Watch Saudi Arabia denies women the right to obtain a passport, marry, travel, or access higher education without the approval of a male guardian like father, husband, brother or son. Abu al-Khair established a vigorous online campaign to support her during the trial. Now an acclaimed human rights activist in her own right, Samar Badawi married Abu al-Khair soon after she was released.
Abu al-Khair later took on the case of Raif Badawi, the brother of Samar Badawi and a prominent Saudi blogger, who was charged with insulting religious authorities and was ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes.
While he was becoming well known for his advocacy, his own government harassed him and the US, though supportive behind the scene, refused to publicly try to protect him.
In 2012 he was awarded the Olof Palme Prize for “his strong, self-sacrificing and sustained struggle to promote respect for human and civil rights for both men and women in Saudi Arabia.” The government did not allow him to attend the ceremony. Around the same time, he and his wife, Samar Badawi, began hosting weekly gatherings in their home where small groups of young dissidents could discuss important issues which are not allowed to be debated publicly.
Waleed Abu al-Khair acknowledged how difficult it was to be a social justice lawyer in an article he wrote around this time. “There are many rich people here because of our oil – and this oil is all we have. But a lot of people do suffer and live a hard life. And they know if they raise their voices, the consequences will be very serious. It’s not that people don’t want change; it’s that they don’t have the ability to bring it about….I have been told many times by United States officials that good relations with Saudi Arabia are vital for them. So they cannot back any political activism – the best they can do is show support for some kinds of social change. Backing people who want to change the system is out of the question. We know that we will get no support from outside in trying to change our country….It is not easy to be an activist in Saudi Arabia. I have been taken into custody for investigation many times; I have been beaten; my wife is banned from leaving Saudi Arabia; and my Twitter, my Facebook account and my website are blocked. I have no doubt they want to put me in prison and one day this will happen – the authorities are just waiting for a good opportunity.”
Finally, after only 7 years of practice, the government jailed Waleed Abu al-Khair was jailed for his human rights advocacy. He has been in jail ever since. Human Rights Watch reported he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison on July 6, 2014 on vague charges stemming from his peaceful human rights advocacy by a special Saudi terrorism court including “Inflaming public opinion and disparaging and insulting judicial authority,” “founding an unlicensed organization,” “distorting the kingdom’s reputation,” and other charges based on his peaceful human rights advocacy.
In jail Abu al-Khair became a father and has been repeatedly been moved around to different prisons, some 600 miles away from his family. In September 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for the release of Abu al-Khair and 8 others from Saudi prisons. Keeping him in jail, the UN stated “forms a part of both continued and recent persecution and crackdown on human rights activists in Saudi Arabia.”
While imprisoned, Waleed Abu al-Khair was awarded the prestigious 2015 Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights Award, first given to Nelson Mandela.
Samar Badawi reflected on what it meant to have her husband Abu al-Khair in prison. “To my fellow Saudi Arabians I say that my husband has been imprisoned so that you could live free. He stood up to the tyrants to claim your rights; he faced up to his oppressors telling them he would not tolerate their repression. Remember that history does not forget, it will exalt those who have fought for freedom and cast aside the memory of those who succumbed to a life of humiliation and servitude.” She also addressed their child, Joud, who was born shortly after he was imprisoned. “My last words are to my baby daughter, Joud. Do not feel sad because you were born while your father was behind bars. Be proud instead and hold your head high, for the whole world envies you for the father you have – even if his homeland has turned against him. The future awaits you to continue your father’s struggle so that you make him even more proud than he is now. You will grow up to be a role model yourself, soon to become known as Joud the free, Joud the defiant, Joud the resilient: Joud Waleed Abu al-Khair.”
Though the US and the UN make noises about the widespread human rights violations by Saudi Arabia, in the end the country’s oil and regional power silence most critics.
As he prepared to enter prison, Abu al-Khair wrote: “In Saudi Arabia, we live a special challenge – the challenge to be free and to own yourself, your inner being, as well as to be a human rights defender in the face of a political power that employs all of its resources and capacity to dominate the judiciary so as to send you to jail and silence your voice…. As long as the oil keeps flowing, the world will turn a blind eye if Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on freedom and human rights…. Because freedom is cultivated, its seeds are those who have sacrificed a lot and have made the sky the limit to their sacrifice. They created a sense of inner peace for themselves that only they can understand. That is why I shall be flying high with them, even from behind bars. In prison I will never need a window that opens out to the sky. I do not need a door to explain to the world why I am there in prison. What I truly need lies within your conscience and every free conscience. There will always be free souls in this world who will not be silenced by oil!…The exception here involves a type of very spiritual people who suffer a lot in the eyes of others but are jubilant and overtly happy deep within. They feel like this simply because they cling onto great hopes – they are resilient in the face of all hardship. They are supported by human rights activists from all over the world and feel overwhelmed by their kindness and solidarity. One of them once said, in front of a courtroom, after being threatened to be sent to prison by the presiding judge: “Even from prison, you can still light a candle.”
Waleed Abu al-Khair has been nominated by several international human rights organizations for the first ever American Bar Association International Human Rights Award.
Please consider signing the Amnesty International online petition demanding his freedom. You can be sure he is working to free all political prisoners.