Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] on Saturday called on the Saudi government [press release] to immediately end the 18-month prosecution of human rights lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair [Frontline backgrounder]. Abu al-Khair is known for his defense of other human rights activists, including a group of a dozen men known for demanding human rights and political reform in Saudi Arabia. Abu al-Khair has been charged with offending the judiciary, trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom, obstructing justice and trying to mislead the course of an investigation. His trial began in September 2011 following criticism of the decision of a judge to jail his client for seven months without trial. HRW criticized the charges as an affront to the rule of law:
The Saudi government’s prosecution of Abu al-Khair is doing far more to distort the reputation of the kingdom than anything he has said or written. If Saudi authorities are truly concerned with the reputation of their judiciary, they should stop prosecuting lawyers who criticize the legal system’s failings.Abu al-Khair stated that he expects he would get a long prison sentence if convicted.
Abu al-Khair's trial comes during a sweeping crackdown on human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Last month UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] condemned [JURIST report] the executions of seven people in Saudi Arabia as a violation of international safeguards on the use of the death penalty. Earlier that month a Saudi Arabian court sentenced [JURIST report] two human rights activists to ten years in prison. A Saudi Arabian court in January convicted [JURIST report] prominent Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed el-Gezawi of smuggling drugs and sentenced him to five years imprisonment and 300 lashes. In December HRW urged Saudi Arabia to drop apostasy charges [JURIST report] against a website editor who co-founded the religious discussion website Free Saudi Liberals, claiming that his arrest violated his right to freedom of expression.