United States must take more vocal stance on human rights abuses

Two leading human rights activists have been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in Saudi Arabia this past weekend in what is the conclusion of a seven-month trial and a further stain on the country’s human rights record. Mohammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid are co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), which gives aid to the families of those detained by the country — a country that lacks a formal penal code. The sentencing occurred in the midst of two high profile diplomatic visits from the United States — that of Secretary of State John Kerry and that of Attorney General Eric Holder. However, neither offered criticism of the country’s abuses. The United States’ silence marks the preservation of a harmful Saudi exception embedded in its attitude towards human rights.

The verdict that al-Qahtani and al-Hamid received on Saturday hardly came as a surprise. In fact, al-Hamed had already informed the presiding judge in December that two of them were “ready for jail,” a gesture that served to reflect the generally arbitrary nature of Saudi justice. The two men appeared in court charged with undermining national unity, disobeying the ruler and questioning the integrity of officials — grave accusations in a country where political dissent is seldom tolerated. Nevertheless, the 10-year sentence was perceived nationally as severe. Speaking with CNN, Tamara Alrifai, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, condemned the sentencing as part of “a systematic approach by the authorities in Saudi Arabia” designed to carry out “the targeting and harassing of activists across the country.” Furthermore, Alrifai insisted that the trial itself has undermined “the Arab Charter of Human Rights to which Saudi Arabia has adhered.”

Despite ardent criticisms, the voices of human rights agencies fell on deaf ears — Kerry and Holder remained conspicuously mute. This American silence exposes an ungrounded fear within U.S. foreign policy that placing importance upon issues of human rights is a distraction from greater concerns within bilateral relations. As Mark Lagon, an adjunct senior fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations argues, “it is important not to assume that human rights always intrinsically contradict U.S. interests,” and that in reality a lack of human rights turns allies “into pressure cookers ready to blow.” While Saudi Arabia is a valuable asset for negotiating the nuclear aspirations of Iran, justifying deafness to injustice through political utility could prove costly in the long run. The liberal voice within Saudi Arabia reflects America’s own political and social standards, and this echo ought to be recognized.

President George W. Bush rightly affirmed — though his rhetoric did not cohere with his actions — that it is a “bigotry of low expectations” to dismiss the governments of the Middle East as incapable of extending human rights to their citizens. If President Barack Obama is to act upon his rhetoric of a global upholding of human rights, there can no longer be a Saudi exception. Expressing concerns about the prosecution of liberal reformists would send a needed message of support to Saudi Arabia’s emerging liberal movement.

Peter Keffer is a foreign correspondent. Email him at [email protected]

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