Nous cherchons désespérément de l’aide pour soutenir notre frère à défendre sa cause et sauver sa vie.—a request for help by Zeinab Abu Al-Khair
“Désespérément.” Translation: We are desperately looking for help to save our brother’s life. Zeinab Abu Al-Khair wrote that today in a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Zeinab lives in Canada). She is appealing to the world community for help in rescuing her brother from an unjust death sentence.
Her brother’s story first appeared here in November, in a column titled, “A Bloodthirsty System.” Thanks to Zeinab, who contacted me on Facebook last fall, I was the first columnist to report Hussein Abu Al-Khair’s arrest, trial, imprisonment, and death sentence. His story is similar to dozens in Saudi Arabia, after all, so how else could one man’s plight attract attention?
Thanks to her tireless efforts, many more people have become aware of his story via Twitter and websites like Movements.org. The artist George Riad Krohn volunteered his time and work and created the charcoal drawing seen at the top.
“Désespérément.” Activists must keep that word in mind without becoming desperate themselves when they contemplate how many stories there are around the world that are of the desperate sort. And Hussein Abu Al-Khair’s story is one that is Kafkaesque in how Saudi Arabia has treated him with a numb, bureaucratic cruelty. The man in George Riad Krohn’s artwork is white-haired, but Hussein was not white-haired two years ago. He has been treated with bland cruelty punctuated by moments of physical and psychological torture.
His story bears a superficial resemblance to that of a British man named Karl Andree who was arrested in August 2014; police stated that they found bottles of homemade wine in Andree’s vehicle. Because Saudi Arabia is officially a dry country in which alcohol and drugs are strictly forbidden, this is a serious crime to be accused of. Andree was convicted and sentenced to be whipped in public. An international outcry erupted at this: an elderly man who was not a Saudi national but instead a British businessman who had done business in Saudi Arabia for years is charged with doing something against that nation’s strict anti-alcohol policy and is going to be whipped in public?
Karl Andree was due to receive 350 lashes, which his children thought was tantamount to a death sentence as he is elderly and ill. The British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, did something that ministers of state rarely do: he spoke out about a specific case. Andree was spared the 350 lashes he was to receive and was freed in November, but he spent 14 months in jail and every second of those 14 months in desperation.
According to the Independent, more than 230,000 people signed a petition urging Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene in the case.
Like Karl Andree, Hussein Abu Al-Khair was arrested in 2014 after he was pulled over by police. They charged him with smuggling drugs across the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. According to his sister, Zeinab, he was told by the police that they were arresting him for drug smuggling even though they did not inspect the vehicle. (Why look for something you are not going to find when officially you have found it already?)
Zeinab described what followed in a letter to me: “He was detained and was tortured for 12 days by being hung up-side down by the ankles with the help of thick chains. He was beaten with sticks, hands and other methods. He has been spat on, insulted and shamed through insults. His body has been hung with his legs and hands stretched out as he was being hurt. When his body and spirit were broken, he was forced to sign a false declaration saying that he admitted to smuggling drugs into Saudi Arabia. From this moment on, he was thrown into the Tabook jail awaiting his trial.”
Signed confessions are a police state’s favorite prosecutorial weapon. There is no possible defense against them, even when torture has been employed to win the signature, even when the country using torture has signed international agreements outlawing torture.
Hussein was granted an appeal after his conviction, but in both trials, his first one and the appeal, no defense attorney was made available to him. He has faced all of this alone, except for the community of activists his sister has assembled. Unlike Karl Andree, however, Hussein was not sentenced to be whipped; he has been sentenced to be beheaded.
Like Andree, Hussein is not a Saudi Arabian national; he is Jordanian. His being Jordanian has possibly made things worse for him: 72 of the 152 executions carried out by Saudi Arabia in 2015 were of non-Saudi foreign nationals. (These numbers are according to ESOHR.) This is almost half of the executions.
It is a relatively uncommon practice for one nation to execute non-citizens in its justice system.
In a report published in November, Amnesty International wrote, “The death penalty is disproportionately used against foreigners in Saudi Arabia. Foreign nationals, mostly migrant workers from developing countries, are particularly vulnerable as they typically lack knowledge of Arabic and are denied adequate translation during their trials.”
Saudi Arabia does not have a published penal code as we in America understand it; the nation codified a “Basic Law of Governance” in 1992 that states “The Courts shall apply rules of the Islamic Sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna.” As Amnesty International wrote in a report this August, “To a large extent, both Sharia and statutory laws are vague on the vast majority of definitions of crimes and their punishment.”
Sharia law is profoundly clear about hudud punishments, which are mandatory and unchangeable because they are punishments for “crimes against God.” According to Amnesty, “Hudud are considered divine punishments and are not subject to a pardon.”
The death penalty is a hadd (singular for hudud) for the following offences: apostasy, adultery by a married person (for which it is stipulated that the sentence should be carried out by stoning), and rebellion and highway robbery (which is defined through a generic reference to violent criminal acts against persons and property and generation of fear in the community). In the case of rebellion and highway robbery, the punishment is death followed by crucifixion if the crime resulted in the death of the victim.—Amnesty International, “Killing in the Name of Justice,” August 2015
Drug smuggling is not a crime for which beheading is a hadd, but it has been decided that it falls under tazir punishments, meaning the trial judge has discretion regarding sentencing. According to Amnesty, “crimes falling under the tazir category do not require proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, unless such crimes have been clearly codified in the form of a statutory law and there is no room for interpretation. This was recently confirmed by Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court in a statement dated 1 February 2015. For tazir crimes, suspicion alone can serve as the basis of evidence, even for crimes punishable by death under tazir, such as drug-related offences. In such cases, the judge is granted the right to use discretion to establish that the evidence supports the accusations against a suspect and that it is enough to punish someone to death.”
Thus, the police who arrested Hussein Abu Al-Khair did not even need to look for the drugs in his car that they were going to accuse him of smuggling. And so, according to what he told his sister from prison, they did not. What the police needed, more than the drugs, was an arrest and a signed confession.
The supreme judicial authority in Saudi Arabia is the king, and he appoints the judges. In a police state, in which the judges are inclined to want to impress the king with their tough-on-crime sentences, and the police are tasked with finding more and more cases to be used by those judges to impress the king, the need for adequate defense for the accused is the first thing lost. The next thing lost is respect for prisoners at all, because confessions are needed to make such a bloodthirsty legal system work more efficiently.
Hussein’s sister produced a video, which I share here:
Hussein needs help. He needs help from Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, who might find a legal means of speaking out because Zeinab lives in Canada; he needs help from activists who have honed their skills at shining a light on injustice. Zeinab’s petition needs signatures to get Trudeau’s attention, so here it is again: Justice for Hussein Abu Al-Khair.
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