The trial of two leading human rights activists in Saudi Arabia will reportedly resume late this week following its start Saturday, as the pair face charges that could send them to jail for several years.
Saudi nationals Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid face a series of charges, including founding an unlicensed civil rights organization and breaking allegiance to the country's rulers.
The opening hearing in Riyadh’s specialized criminal court was heavily attended by activists and friends of Qahtani and Hamid, who are both members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA).
Qahtani, an economics professor, is one the most vocal critics of the Saudi government. In 2009, he co-founded ACPRA, an unlicensed organization where Hamid is a prominent member.
“We have been doing our work for several years. The authorities kept quiet for a long time, but now they are coming after us hard,” Qahtani told the BBC after the Saturday hearing. “We are not going to be silent. We will continue to do our work.”
At the opening hearing, Hamid and Qahtani each read their defense statements to the court, but the presiding judge reportedly told them that their statements were not sufficient as a response to the charges against them.
The judge asked them both to submit revised versions of their statements the next day, and Qahtani has said via his Twitter account the next hearing will take place in September 8.
Some attendees posted updates and photos from the court room to Twitter and Facebook, an unusual occurrence in Saudi Arabia, where similar trials have typically been held behind closed doors.
A number of activists and supporters filled the small court room, according to Saudi journalist Iman al-Qahtani (no relation to Mohammed), who used her Twitter account to report from there.
“I was asked by a soldier not to take photos,” she said. However a number of images and accounts of proceedings appeared online, posted by many of the others in attendance.
According to Iman’s tweets, the judge ordered those using cell phones to leave the court room, threatening to arrest any who refused to leave.
According to the public prosecution memo against Hamid that was published online, he is accused of spreading chaos, destabilizing public order, attempting to impede development in the country and questioning the integrity of official clerics by accusing them of being tools for the royal family.
Similar charges were issued against Qahtani. If convicted, the pair would reportedly face up to five years in prison.
Hamid, or Abu Bilal as he likes to be called, is a reform activist who has been jailed repeatedly for calling for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia.
Recent cases against Qahtani and other activists have been heavily criticized by international human rights organizations. Amnesty International called in June for the case against Qahtani to be thrown out of court.
“The trial of Mohammad al-Qahtani is just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the Kingdom’s human rights activists,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, in a statement.
“This must come to an end and human rights defenders must be allowed to carry on their crucial work to expose human rights violations and call for justice and accountability.”
Mohammed al-Bejadi, another founding member of ACPRA, received a four-year jail sentence in April on similar charges.