Renowned academic and Saudi human rights activist, Abdullah al-Hamid has reportedly died in Saudi jail. His calls for reforming Saudi Arabia’s monarchy made him one of the most prominent and persistent dissidents, leading to frequent prison terms. A co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association and award recipient of the 2018 Right Livelihood Award, al-Hamid publicly and repeatedly called for sweeping political change in a county were dissent is being smothered more harshly than ever. Imprisoned since 2013 for his activism, al-Hamid suffered a stroke and was in a coma when he passed. His death raises questions, once again, about the country’s human rights record.
Al-Hamid, who also had hypertension, had been in a coma since having a stroke on April 9. According to the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International, three months before his death, al-Hamid was advised by a doctor that he needed heart surgery. However, prison authorities threatened to cut off his contact with his family if al-Hamid told his relatives about his condition. Reports suggest Saudi authorities would not allow him to remain in the hospital for the needed heart surgery and sent him back to prison. The Qatar-based news network, Al-Jazeera, citing some human rights activists, also reported the death of al-Hamid due to “medical negligence.” The Saudi authorities have not yet commented on his death; however, they usually deny any negligence in care of prisoners.
Ole von Uexküll, the executive director of the Right Livelihood Foundation, stated, “He has paid the ultimate price for his convictions. We hold Saudi authorities directly responsible for al-Hamid’s death, as they have deliberately denied him access to proper medical care for many months during his imprisonment.”
A Life of Activism
Born in central Saudi Arabia around the year 1950, Abdullah al-Hamid studied Arabic language and literary criticism at Riyadh University and al-Azhar University in Egypt, according to the 2015 book, “Muted Modernists: The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia.” Amnesty International reports he is survived by his wife and eight children.
In 1993, al-Hamid and five other activists and religious scholars founded the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights. The organization called for political detainees to be release and for Saudi royals to be held accountable for abuses. As a result, authorities cracked down and accused the group of having ties to Islamic extremists. Al-Hamid was arrested several times between 1993 and 1996. In the early 2000s, he had joined a movement calling for a constitutional monarchy, and was arrested again in 2004. King Abdullah pardoned him, however, on the condition that he stop calling for reform. But, in 2008 al-Hamid was in prison again for supporting a peaceful protest by the wives of prisoners in his hometown. After being released, al-Hamid helped found the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which continued to demand for a constitutional monarchy. According to Human Rights Watch, the organization also helped families of political prisoners sue the government over arbitrary detentions.
Imprisoned a total of seven times during his life, al-Hamid also lost his position as a lecturer at Imam Mohammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. Four years after founding the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, al-Hamid and another co-founder were sent to prison on charges of destabilizing public order, spreading chaos, questioning officials’ integrity, and setting up an unlicensed organization in 2013.
In a country increasingly suppressing dissent, al-Hamid spoke up for change by marrying Islamic principles with universal human rights values. He called for a monarchy with an elected parliament and an independent judiciary to guarantee accountability in government and the rights of Saudi citizens. Madawi al-Rasheed at the London School of Economics, a Saudi academic who studies Saudi reformers and activists, and he says al-Hamid played a unique role in advancing human rights in the country by rooting his arguments in the language of Islamic tradition. On the website Middle East Eye, al-Rasheed wrote, “Hamid’s project will remain alive even after his death. He fused tradition with new meanings that promised respect for human rights, property and the right to defend oneself against a brutal judiciary and monarchy.”
This ability to merge human rights ideals and the Islamic religious tradition inspired many young Saudi activists, according to the deputy director Adam Coogle for the Middle East and North Africa at the Human Rights Watch. Though many of those who followed al-Hamid are now in prison or in exile, Mr. Coogle says that he would not consider the movement al-Hamid inspired as dead. Ideas may be repressed, but they are difficult to eradicate.
Under the leadership of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, the limited room afforded to dissent in past decades has vanished. The 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post is one of the most well-known episodes in the Saudi government’s systematic effort to co-opt, threaten, arrest, and silence critics. The new of al-Hamid’s death comes as Amnesty International reports Saudi Arabia executed 184 people last year — a record for the country. By the end of his life, Saudi Arabia embraced some social changes – including new freedoms for women – but the country has may have veered even further from the vision that al-Hamid fought for.
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