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'The situations and suffering of these people are huge'

Aug. 30, 2013

It was the tweet that nearly ruined a career.

In spring 2013, Saudi human rights lawyer Abdulaziz Al Hussan used Twitter to share an allegation of government abuses against his clients, two of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent activists. 

Hussan tweeted that his clients, Mohammad Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, were forced to remain in handcuffs when he went to visit them in prison. Although the account was supported by other witnesses, Saudi officials denied the charge.

Abdulazia Al Hussan

Saudi human rights lawyer Abdulaziz Al Hussan used Twitter to share an allegation of government abuses against his clients -- and was nearly imprisoned.

Less than 24 hours after the tweet, Al Hussan was summoned for interrogation and his license to practice law was challenged by the Saudi Ministry of Justice. He was targeted by pro-government media and subjected to the same suppression that his clients had just battled. 

Instead of waiting to face imprisonment, or at minimum to be banned from traveling, Al Hussan moved to Bloomington, where he is now a visiting scholar at the IU Maurer School of Law Center for Constitutional Democracy.

Crackdowns on political activism in Saudi Arabia seem to be on the rise.  According to the BBC, Saudi Arabia has the world’s fastest growth in Twitter users, which has provided a grassroots platform for protests.  The Saudi government has recently suggested quelling dissent by linking Twitter accounts with users’ national ID numbers, and security officials have even blocked applications such as WhatsApp and Viber. 

Activist Mohammed Al-Bagadi was taken from the streets after demanding fair trial for the detainees in Saudi prisons, leading to more than two years of imprisonment. A 78-year-old lawyer and former judge, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, was imprisoned five times for speaking out about human rights. He was recently sent to prison for 15 years. 

“The situations and suffering of these people are huge,” Al Hussan said.  “Nobody is protecting them, there are no associations for Saudis to advocate for them and they are often imprisoned without due process.” 

Al Hussan plans to continue his human rights work from outside the kingdom, working with international human rights organizations to review cases and statements. 

This fall, he will travel to Europe to promote Saudi human rights cases and build bridges of communication between Saudi Arabia’s civil society and Europe. “What we need are activists outside Saudi Arabia who can communicate with the international community about cases inside,” he said. “The majority of people on the inside are silent and reluctant to speak out. International exposure is very important.”

Through his work at the Center for Constitutional Democracy, Al Hussan will lead a team of academics investigating the possibilities for constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia. The center works with reformers and governing bodies in countries such as South Sudan, Burma and Liberia, to design constitutional structures which lead to stable democratic institutions. 

“Bad constitutions imprison countries so their citizens cannot build a better future. Good constitutions free them. And knowledge about constitutional design is the key to the prison doors,” said David C. Williams, John S. Hastings Professor of Law and the center’s executive director. 

Al Hussan is part of a tradition of scholars who have fled dangerous conditions in their home countries to study at the Center for Constitutional Democracy. Students from IU’s Burmese Refugee Scholarship Program helped found the center in order to become activists for democracy in their homeland.  More recently, the center has attracted activists from Vietnam, China, South Korea and Pakistan who are studying legal and constitutional paths to reform.

“The center’s practical experience in different countries will add value to the study of constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia,” Al Hussan said.  “This area of law does not exist in Saudi Arabia due to authoritarian rule.”  

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