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Saudi Arabia: Solitary Confinement Of Prominent Scholar With Disability Amounts To Full-fledged Rights Violations

GENEVA (15 May 2024)

The prolonged solitary confinement of religious scholar and critic Safar bin Abdulrahman al-Hawali without trial and necessary accommodations for his disability constituted serious violations, including arbitrary detention and torture or ill-treatment, UN disability rights experts have found.

The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) today published its Decision after reviewing a complaint filed by al-Hawali’s nephew, who claimed that his uncle was arrested in 2018 and detained since then as a punishment for his peaceful criticism of the Crown Prince.

“Mr al-Hawali has been subjected to a wide range of human rights abuses over the past six years, involving enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, denial of the right to due process, deprivation of the right to health, as well as acts of torture or inhuman treatment,” said Committee member Markus Schefer.

Aged 76 now, al-Hawali has permanent impairments as a result of strokes, which have impacted his communication, mobility, and self-care ability. He has chronic apraxia of speech, which precludes him from using his facial muscles to speak and be understood. He is unable to move independently, and his broken pelvis and renal failure necessitate regular medical attention.

In July 2018, al-Hawali and one of his sons were arrested by the Presidency of State Security without any arrest or search warrants. His family didn’t know his whereabouts for more than two months until the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances requested information from the authorities, which subsequently stated that al-Hawali was under investigation pursuant to the Counter-Terrorism and Financing of Terrorism Act.

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He was then transferred to the Al Hayr Prison in Riyadh, where he has allegedly been held since. The Counter-Terrorism Act has allowed for al-Hawali’s prolonged detention without bringing him before a judge or granting legal assistance.

Despite his need for assistance with communication, mobility and self-care, he has not been provided with any of the accommodations required by his disability. As a result, he has been isolated and unable to express his needs in the detention centre. Family members can only visit him occasionally. According to his family, his health condition has deteriorated significantly during his detention.

“Even if there was a basis under domestic law for his detention, the authorities’ treatment of Mr al-Hawali as well as the delays in acknowledging his whereabouts and judicial delays are inappropriate, unjustified and unreasonable,” Schefer said, adding that, “the Committee, therefore, considered that Mr al-Hawali was subjected to an enforced disappearance and his detention was arbitrary.”

Despite al-Hawali’s inability to communicate, the authorities had not taken any measures to enable him to express himself before the judiciary and to bring complaints. The Committee thus found that Saudi Arabia had breached al-Hawali’s rights to access to justice and due process.

Noting the degradation of al-Hawali’s state of health in detention, the Committee considered it a violation of his right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.

Taking into account the degree of suffering involved in prolonged isolation, the Committee considered that the Saudi Arabian authorities had also breached al-Hawali’s rights to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and to respect for his physical and mental integrity.

The Committee asked Saudi Arabia to promptly review al-Hawali’s case to ensure a fair and public trial in accordance with international standards, or to release him.

“We also called on the State party to immediately stop any act of reprisal against Mr al-Hawali and his relatives. Civic space for criticism of State institutions is a fundamental pillar for a democratic society,” Schefer stated.

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