US 'troubled' by jailing of Saudi rights activist

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States expressed its concern on Monday over the jailing of a prominent rights lawyer in Saudi Arabia and said it would raise such cases with the kingdom.

Washington “is troubled by the 15-year prison sentence, travel ban and steep fine handed down to human rights lawyer and activist Waleed Abulkhair,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters.

“We urge the Saudi government to respect international human rights norms, a point we have made to them regularly.” Abulkhair, under arrest since April 26, has had many run-ins with the authorities over his activism and for allegedly insulting them.

Amnesty International describes him as a prisoner of conscience and his case was discussed in the State Department’s latest human rights report.

In addition to his imprisonment, he was barred from traveling abroad for 15 years and fined 200,000 riyals (around S$66,500), according to relatives.

His wife, Samar Badawi, told AFP that Abulkhair was convicted on a series of charges including “undermining the regime and officials” as well as “inciting public opinion” and “undermining judicial authorities.”

The activist had already been out on bail for having unauthorised meetings of reformists.

His wife said he was facing another trial in a case linked to his founding of a rights group – the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia – which he set up on Facebook without a permit after authorities failed to respond to his request to launch the group.

In 2012, Saudi authorities banned Abulkhair from traveling to the United States, where he was due to attend a forum organised by the State Department. The previous year he signed petitions demanding political reform in the kingdom, where political parties are banned.

Ms Psaki said “it’s important to continue to highlight issues where we have concerns,” and that Secretary of State John Kerry routinely raises human rights concerns with world leaders.

When pressed about Kerry’s meeting in Jeddah late last month with Saudi Arabia’s monarch, Ms Psaki said that discussion was “really about the dire situation in Iraq” and suggested Abulkhair’s case was not addressed.