The case of lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair deserves attention.
Sorry to return to my old Middle Eastern stamping grounds, but further developments in the region this week deserve note. Last Friday, the public flogging in Jeddah of blogger Raif Badawi was condemned worldwide. Badawi received 50 strokes of the cane, the first weekly instalment of 1,000 lashes to be delivered along with a 10-year prison sentence for ‘insulting Islam’.
On Monday this week, a court set up by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to deal with terrorism cases revised a prison sentence it passed last year on the country’s most prominent human rights lawyer, Walid Abu al-Khair. Following an intervention by the state prosecutor, which said al-Khair had refused to express remorse, he will now serve a full 15 years instead of 10 years with five suspended. Following the completion of his sentence he will be barred from leaving the country for 15 years.
Anyone seeking more information on the case should follow the Gulf Center for Human Rights, based in Beirut. It has called for the immediate and unconditional release of al-Khair, and has respectfully reminded the authorities in Saudi Arabia ‘that the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998, recognizes the legitimacy of the activities of human rights defenders, their right to freedom of association and to carry out their activities without fear of reprisals’.
Of course the group is whistling in the wind. There is no evidence of the Saudi authorities paying the slightest attention to a foreign human rights organisation in the past, and given the precariousness of the political situation there is little hope of them starting now. Thus the temptation is to cite realpolitik and ‘cultural respect’ while continuing to do business with the kingdom. I’ve done so myself. I’ve also thought it extremely bad manners to sound off about human rights at colleagues who have no possibility of effecting change (especially if your command of Arabic is basically baby talk).
Yet despite the apparent futility, some things need to be said and the time is right to be a bit more blunt. The rule of the old guard in the kingdom is coming to an end. King Abdullah, the fifth son of ibn-Saud to sit on the throne, is 90 and his likely successor 78. Transition to a new generation may be painful and even bloody, but that prospect should no longer fill us with the dread it did in the 1980s when Europe and the US were dependent on Saudi oil.
Whoever is in charge when the dust settles is most unlikely to be a friend of human rights and freedoms, but at least by starting to speak out now we can avoid the corrupting compromises which too often have been made with the current appalling regime.
Any other ideas?
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor