Dr Abdullah Al-Hamid, one of Saudi Arabia’s political heroes, recently died in detention in the country that he loved. His death was not an accident. He had been unwell for some time and the Saudi authorities refused to give him the medical care he needed. No longer happy with chopping up those who disagree with him, deliberate medical negligence seems to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s new preferred method of dealing with detained activists.
Along with denying much-needed medical care to the activists themselves, this new method developed by MBS (as he is known) extends to the families of those detained. To put pressure on activists, their family members are now also being prevented from traveling or are being arrested themselves as well as being tortured. I know this because I am one of those activists whose family has been targeted. In 2012, I was granted asylum in Britain for my activism, trying to bring awareness and put an end to the dictatorship and authoritarian policies that the Saudi state has long promoted. Although I was lucky to get out of the country, it is another story for my family who stayed there.
My mother, Aida Al-Ghamdi and two of my brothers who remained in Saudi Arabia were all arrested. My mother and one brother were arrested in Jeddah in March 2018 by Saudi authorities. In such an authoritarian country as Saudi Arabia, it is impossible that the Crown Prince would not know about this. My mother is 64 years old and suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. No official explanation was ever provided to us about why they were arrested. However, the circumstances of their arrest makes it clear that my activism was the cause. On the same day as their arrest, my house in the city of Dammam, about 1200km from Jeddah, was raided by a large armed force. My other brother, Sultan Al-Ghamdi was then also arrested without a warrant of any kind.
My mother and brother were tortured in front of each other after they were arrested. They were severely beaten and cigarettes were extinguished on their skin. They were all kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. My brother was forced to record a video denouncing me and my activism. The video was widely shared on social media by official Saudi channels. I was then told that any contact with my family members would endanger their lives further.
In the two years since their arrest, Saudi Arabia has tried to promote itself as some kind of reformist state which cares about its people. Although the murder of Jamal Khashoggi made global headlines and there was outrage for a little while, it seems that these feelings have been forgotten. Now, with the global Coronavirus pandemic, there is even less pressure on the Saudi government to uphold the human rights of its citizens and the level of abuse has increased. Only a few days ago, an activist fighting eviction from his tribe’s ancestral land, in order to build the new tech city Neom, was shot and killed.
For me and my family, the pandemic has been especially concerning given the cramped and unsanitary conditions of Saudi prisons. My ailing mother is especially at risk from the virus, given her age and pre-existing conditions. Now that we know the prison authorities are refusing treatment for extremely high profile political prisoners like Dr Al-Hamid, the risk posed to my mother is even greater.
I am still forbidden from speaking to them. It is an agony for me. I have been told that the only way they will release my mother and brothers will be if I go back to Saudi Arabia and hand myself in, but we don’t even know if this is true.
The United Kingdom welcomed me and saved me from what could have been severe consequences for speaking my mind about the repressive policies in Saudi Arabia. Now, I am asking the UK and other European Governments to once again show that they are guided by strong moral principles and ask Saudi Arabia to release my mother, brothers, and all political prisoners that they are currently holding. It is the only right thing to do in these circumstances.
- Abdullah Al-Ghamdi is a Saudi Arabian activist who was granted political asylum in 2012. His mother and brother remain imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.
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