Saudi Arabia: No one should be imprisoned for simply standing up for human rights

On his 17th birthday, Omar al-Qahtani writes about his dad, Mohammad al-Qahtani, a human rights defender and founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of Saudi Arabia’s few independent human rights organizations. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence for peacefully calling for reforms in the country.

My name is Omar Al-Qahtani and today I turn 17.

I have two brothers and two sisters, oldest is Abdullah (20), then Norah (18), than me, then Othman (15), and Layla (4). Then there’s also Harley Davidson (24 weeks), our kitten.

We are what you would call a regular family, except we are far away from our father, who’s been in prison in Saudi Arabia for 5 years. Thankfully though, we talk to him every day. My father is a really brave man who will never give up on his beliefs. We are all so proud of him.

My father loves to have fun with us and to enjoy life but he is very serious when it comes to school and work. Before his arrest, life in Saudi Arabia was different: easier, simpler. 

We lived in the capital city, Riyadh, and, every day, Dad would drive us to school before he and Mum went to their jobs. On the weekends, we would go for picnics, especially during the summer when the weather was beautiful and hot and we would sit together under the shade of a tree. At night we built bonfires and had barbecues and would sit around and tell each other stories, drinking tea or hot chocolate. Sometimes, before my youngest sister Layla was born, we would camp out in a tent on my father’s land together, snuggled up in sleeping bags for the night. On special days when we didn’t have to go to school, Dad would take us out into the sand dunes to ride in the dune buggies.

I miss him so much.

I miss him waking me up in the morning and taking us to school; I miss having dude nights with him and my brother; I miss our fun days in the desert and having picnics in the sunshine.

My father is a really smart guy who works hard for our future and for everyone’s future. He only did what was right, advocating for reforms and should not be in prison. Everybody has the right to freedom of speech.

One day when we were still in Saudi Arabia, my dad told me to go to the court to watch his trial. He wanted me to understand what was happening to him. I don’t remember much – I was only 12 or 13 at that time – but I do remember they charged him with 11 different things such as founding an unlicensed organisation and disobeying the ruler. None of these charges made any sense.

The last time I saw him before we moved to the US, we were at the airport and he was dressed very smartly. That smile he gave us still burns in my memory.

But shortly after our departure, he was arrested. I was in the US and I didn’t actually find out until a month later. I was with my family and I just couldn’t believe it was true. I was really shocked and refused to believe what I was being told.

We had left Saudi Arabia at the beginning of 2013. School was okay. I spoke English fairly well already and although it was challenging, things gradually got better. On my first day at school I met all these people from different countries around the world, like Konstantin from Macedonia and Juan from Puerto Rico, and then after a month I started making friends.

But I always felt that something was missing being away from my father, whom I no longer saw every morning.

Earlier this year my two brothers, Abdullah and Othman, and I went back to Saudi Arabia to visit my father in prison for the first time in four years.

On the day of the visit, after waiting around five hours in prison because my father didn’t want us to see him in handcuffs, the guards refused to let him see us in private without them. So we had to leave. It was very hard. I was so excited and nervous to see my dad, but we just had to wait, not knowing when we would eventually get to hug him.

The second time round, we finally got to see him! He looked so happy but equally shocked when we came into the tiny room where he was sat. I noticed a camera in the corner of the room, watching us.

Hugging my father for the first time in four years was an indescribable feeling. I felt joy and sadness all at the same time but, mostly, I felt lucky: lucky to have such an amazing father and lucky to be able to see him again.

He looked okay but he had lost a lot of weight. He was shocked by how much I had grown and said to me: “You’ve really become a man now, Omar!”

We sat with him for about an hour, and I never wanted it to end. He was smiling the whole time and listening carefully to all of our news. He advised us to concentrate and do well at school. “If you fail, I fail,” he told me.

To anyone reading this around the world: I don’t know how you can help, but it makes me hopeful when I see people wanting to know the truth. I just ask that you stand by my father, keep his story and his beliefs alive, and tell the Saudi Arabian government that no one should be treated this way. No one should be imprisoned for simply standing up for human rights.

To my brothers and sisters of Saudi Arabia, I say: remember that the truth, no matter how big or small, will reveal itself sooner or later. In our country, there is a complete line drawn between justice and the law; the first remains truthful and the other is toyed with by man.

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Send this tweet to the King of Saudi Arabia: Defending human rights is not a crime! Mohammad al-Qahtani should not be in prison. @KingSalman, release him now!