A prominent human rights reformer died after years in prison in Saudi Arabia on Friday, April 24th; the first day of Ramadan.
Abdullah al-Hamid was a scholar of Arabic language, a poet and a longtime advocate for human rights in Saudi Arabia. He founded the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) in 1993 and was subsequently arrested and released several times in the early nineties.
While Saudi authorities prohibit civil society from independently forming organizations, Dr. al-Hamid and several colleagues bravely defied this prohibition, establishing the Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA) in 2008. The Arabic acronym for the group “HASM” became a powerful symbol of a new reformation movement in Saudi society. HASM focused on defending human and political rights and documenting arbitrary detainment and torture in prison.
Dr. al-Hamid eloquently grounded his theory of rights for all within Islamic trends of analysis. His reach was powerful, as he united individuals within Saudi society that had long been systemically divided due to Saudi state indoctrination. Where few managed to bridge the State-constructed societal divisions, HASM fostered a sense of solidarity among Saudis. Dr. al-Hamid led a rare movement that recognized rights for all–regardless of religious sect or interpretation, liberal or conservative, and gender or tribal background.
Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid validated that it was within the population’s frame of Islamic rights to participate in State proceedings, to peacefully demonstrate, and call for injustices to be corrected. His movement was grounded in a peaceful reformist Islamic interpretation that articulately challenged and delegitimized the Saudi State’s religio-political narrative of absolute divine dominance, control and blind obedience.
Dr. al-Hamid’s movement for human rights was such a threat to the Saudi regime that in 2013, Abdullah al-Hamid and dozens of his colleagues were detained, including Mohammed al-Qahtani, Waleed Abu al-Khair, Dr. Abdulkareem al-Khodair, and Sheikh Sulaiman al-Rashoudi. Saudi society followed along in social media and expressed their support as Dr. al-Hamid and other ACPRA members eloquently defended themselves in court.a
The more support among Saudis that HASM garnered, the more aggressively the State targeted them for silencing. In 2017, these human rights defenders were charged in court with “inciting public discord against the legitimate Muslim ruler of Saudi Arabia” and issued sentences longer than most who commit violent crimes in the country.
The ACPRA members on trial were given a combined total of 105 years in prison and 94 years of travel bans, in addition to at least $67,000 in fines.
The United Nations and several human rights organizations around the world have called for ACPRA members to be released from prison. Campaigns had been ongoing for several weeks leading up to Dr. al-Hamid’s tragic death, calling specifically on the Saudi authorities to end violations against Dr. al-Hamid’s deteriorating health in prison.
These pleas fell on deaf ears, and while the Saudi State was busy on propaganda campaigns toting itself as a world leader for the State’s response to coronavirus, one of the nation’s greatest reformers was being killed through imprisonment and medical neglect. His death comes as yet another reminder of the brutality of the Saudi regime and its barbaric treatment of Saudi reformers. The legacy of Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid lives on, as a hero who gave his life fighting for a better Saudi Arabia for all.
Bethany Alhaidari is Freedom Forward’s Women’s Rights Advocate and a PhD Candidate in International Human Rights Law at the Irish Centre for Human Rights focusing her research on Saudi Arabia.