HRW urges Saudi Arabia to release founder of rights group

Protests, activism remain banned in absolute monarchy

DUBAI - Human Rights Watch on Wednesday urged Saudi authorities to free an ex-judge and founder of a rights group who is serving a 15-year jail sentence for "breaking allegiance to the king."
Sulaiman al-Rashudi, 76, was one of 16 people detained in 2007 and sentenced to jail in November 2011 "for peacefully trying to establish a human rights organisation in Jeddah" and "breaking allegiance to the king," HRW said.
"Saudi authorities should immediately release and drop all charges against" Rashudi, founder of the Saudi Association of Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), said the New York-based watchdog.
Rashudi was also accused of "cooperating with outside organisations" and faced "other charges that arose entirely from his peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of association."
He was released on bail in April 2011 but he was re-arrested on December 12 after giving a public lecture in Riyadh in which he defended demonstrations as legal under sharia (Islamic) law.
HRW director for the Middle East, Sarah Leah Whitson, condemned the "cruel" sentence against Rashudi and said Saudi authorities "seem to be saying that no independent individual can comment on sharia law."
The watchdog quoted family members as saying Rashudi was denied the right to appeal the sentence while his daughter, Bahiya, was briefly detained on Sunday after taking part in a protest calling for the release of political detainees.
Four people arrested with Rashudi in 2007 and convicted of similar charges are still in jail, including professor Saud al-Hashimi who is serving a 30-year sentence.
"The 11 others detained in 2007 were sentenced to prison terms of up to 25 years in 2010 but were released on bail after agreeing to sign pledges that they will not engage in further activity that the authorities consider unlawful," said HRW.
Protests and political activism are banned in the oil-rich kingdom, an absolute monarchy where the grand mufti has slammed popular protests across the region as anti-Islamic, saying they only serve to spread chaos.