Saudi King Salman's Washington Visit Prompted This Message From 12,000 People

Saudi King Salman's Washington Visit Prompted This Message From 12,000 People

Lawyers for the jailed human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al Khair tried to deliver a petition to the king.

Headshot of Akbar Shahid AhmedForeign Affairs Reporter, The Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz received a variety of offerings when he visited the U.S. capital last week.

President Barack Obama pledged to "significantly elevate the relationship between the two countries." The ritzy Four Seasons in Georgetown provided red carpets and all 222 of its rooms for the king and his entourage.

But the monarch may also have received something a little less agreeable: a reminder that the world, including some of the Americans he was visiting, is aware of his kingdom's notorious repression.

Lawyers for the jailed Saudi Arabian human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al Khair capitalized on the news of the Saudi king's visit by trying to present him with a Change.org petition calling for al Khair's release. "Waleed Abu al-Khair is a human rights lawyer of the highest order and his imprisonment is antithetical to justice and all legal principles," the petition reads.

The petition attracted 12,623 signatures by Aug. 31. At that point, one of al Khair's attorneys, Elizabeth King, delivered a printed copy to the Saudi Consulate in Houston, Texas. Sultan al Angari, the Saudi consul general there, promised to take the document with him when he traveled to Washington, King stated. She added that al Khair's lawyers were "thankful" to the Saudi diplomat for his help.

The Saudi Consulate in Houston and the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to The Huffington Post's requests for comment.  Daniel Arshack, a New York-based lawyer working on al Khair's case pro bono, could not confirm whether the king had received the petition.

Al Khair has been in a Saudi prison since April 2014, on charges related to insulting state institutions and undermining the government. During his trial, the court referenced Saudi Arabia's broad, year-old anti-terror law to sentence him to 15 years in jail and fine him $53,000. He'll also be banned from leaving the country for 15 years after his release, even if his jail time is reduced.

Rights advocacy organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch argue that the Saudi government is punishing al Khair for publicly standing up for reform in Saudi Arabia and using his legal skills to protect other persecuted activists.

"Waleed Abu al-Khair, like so many other human rights defenders in the Kingdom, has been the victim of the country's anti-terrorism law," Kate Kizer, the government relations officer at Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, wrote in an email. "Rather than using this legislation to actually prosecute and counter threats from terrorism, the Government of Saudi Arabia has continued to focus its prosecutorial efforts, by and large, on those Saudi citizens who advocate for human rights, free speech, and, in the case of Waleed Abu al-Khair, for defending other human rights activists."

Among al Khair's clients is Raif Badawi, a jailed liberal blogger who criticized the country's powerful state-linked clergy and who became internationally recognized earlier this year when Saudi Arabia subjected him to a public flogging session. Samar Badawi, another prominent activist who received the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award in 2012, is al Khair's wife and Raif Badawi's sister. She said last year that her husband's treatment in prison included punishments "amounting to torture,"such as sleep deprivation.

Al Khair did not defend himself during his trial because he does not recognize the legitimacy of the new terrorism court, according to Arshack. Seeking legal representation might also have meant endangering a fellow lawyer in Saudi Arabia -- something al Khair and his wife hoped to avoid.

Arshack told HuffPost he had attempted to travel to Saudi Arabia earlier this year to consult with al Khair's family and attempt to reduce his sentence "through quiet diplomatic negotiation." But the government denied his visa, which prompted him to try and raise the case's public profile, he said. 

The Obama administration has criticized the Saudi government's treatment of al Khair. So have U.S. lawmakers. In Europe, his case drew the attention of several major bar associations and high-profile attorneys, who together announced in June that they were honoring him with the prestigious Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights Prize.

Still, the White House's Sept. 4 statement describing Obama's meeting with King Salman did not mention al Khair, Badawi or human rights issues, sticking instead to U.S.-Saudi cooperation on matters like the fight against the Islamic State group.

The State Department's latest report on human rights in Saudi Arabia noted that Saudis are deprived of the ability to change their government and cannot exercise freedoms of expression, assembly and association, movement and religion or enjoy equal rights -- obtaining a driver's license, for instance, is off limits for women.

Arshack told HuffPost that al Khair and his wife remain optimistic about eventually winning his release.

"If there were ever [clients] of mine for whom it would be appropriate for them to be depressed and negative, it would be them," he added. "They know and they believe that ultimately, their position will be vindicated." 

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