When activists put out the call for a “Day of Rage" in Saudi Arabia on March 11, only one man showed up outside the courthouse in Riyadh.
Khaled Johani, a 40-year-old teacher, told journalists that he knew what was coming for defying the ultraconservative kingdom’s ban on protests.
"I am going to prison, happily," he told a BBC reporter. "That is it. There is nothing to lose. There are policemen here and there.... There is no way I can reach home. But thank God I expressed my opinions."
Arrested minutes later and charged with supporting a protest and communicating with foreign journalists, Johani remains in detention to this day and has not been tried, according to a new report by London-based Amnesty International.
Johani was one of hundreds of people arrested for demonstrating in what Amnesty describes as a “new wave of repression” in Saudi Arabia as pro-democracy uprisings swept the Middle East and North Africa this year. Prominent reformists have been sentenced to long jail terms, and a draft anti-terrorism law would effectively criminalize dissent as a "terrorist crime,” according to the report.
Saudi Arabia, which adheres to the strict Wahabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, has not seen the massive uprisings that have rocked other countries in the region, but there have been smaller demonstrations in the country’s mainly Shiite Muslim Eastern Province.
Shiites in Saudi Arabia regularly complain about discrimination and say they still face restrictions in getting some jobs, although their situation has improved somewhat under King Abdullah and the reforms he has implemented. The government denies charges of such discrimination.
More than 300 people who took part in protests in the restive Eastern Province, most of them Shiites, have been arrested, the report says. Most have been freed, but many had to pledge they wouldn’t protest again and some are now subject to travel bans, Amnesty says.
Shiite cleric Sheikh Tawfiq Jaber Ibrahim Amr was arrested twice this year after calling for reforms and was charged with “inciting public opinion,” the report says.
And 16 men, including prominent activists, were sentenced Nov. 22 to prison terms of up to 30 years after being convicted of charges such as sedition and forming a secret organization. During their trial, which Amnesty called "grossly unfair," the defendants were cuffed and blindfolded and their lawyer was barred from the court for the first couple of sessions, the organization said.
"Myself, their families and judges whom we know on the bench are all shocked," defense lawyer Bassim Alim told Reuters news agency after the verdict. "I do not have any hope with how things are moving now."
This summer, Amnesty published what it said was a copy of a leaked secret draft anti-terrorism law, which would make it a terrorist offense to endanger national unity or harm the reputation of the state or its position. The draft would also permit extended detention without charge, according to the group.
After Amnesty published the draft law, it said Saudi authorities appeared to briefly block access to its website from within the kingdom and said that its concerns about the law were “baseless, mere supposition and without foundation.”
“Unless it is radically altered, the proposed draft anti-terror law would make the current situation even worse, as it would entrench and make legal the very worst practices we have documented,” Amnesty’s interim Middle East and North Africa director, Philip Luther, said in a statement Thursday.
“The Saudi Arabian government absolutely has a responsibility to protect the public from violent attacks, but that has to be done within the boundaries of international law.”