Like Waleed Abu Al-Khair, We Must Never Waver in Our Commitment to Human Rights

JEDDAH, SAUDI  ARABIA  - SEPTEMBER 25:   Young supporters of a freer country meet weekly at the home of human rights advocate
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - SEPTEMBER 25: Young supporters of a freer country meet weekly at the home of human rights advocate Waleed Abu Alkhair (pictured) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 25, 2012. Groups like these must meet in private to voice the taboo subjects of social, political and philosophical differences in their country. Abu Alkhair served a few months in prison for voicing opposition in the past. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The following speech will be delivered on November 27, 2015 at the Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights Award ceremony in Geneva.

I am in Geneva accepting, on behalf of my client, the most prestigious human rights award in Europe, the Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights Award, which was first bestowed on Nelson Mandela.

I am honored to have been asked by Waleed Abu Al-Khair to be his attorney and to accept this award on his behalf.

We are here today to give Waleed an award that recognizes "those who defend the supremacy of law."

Sometimes mounting this defense means protesting and even defying laws which are fundamentally unjust. As Nelson Mandela, the first recipient of this award, said, "When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw." If Waleed has become an outlaw he just as certainly has remained a patriot. He continues to express a deep love for his country and its promise, despite being separated from his wife and daughter and imprisoned by a tyrannical regime that wields its limitless power as a sword against the best and brightest of its citizens.

Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly pledged to comply with various human rights conventions, it nonetheless repeatedly has trampled the basic human rights of Waleed and others who are now languishing in Saudi prisons with crippling sentences of 15, 20 and 30 years. Our moral imperative is to stand and bear witness against this egregious violation of Waleed's rights -- and the rights of all Saudi Arabians. This award is a symbol of our witness.

When Waleed was imprisoned, his wife, Samar Badawi, a brave human rights activist in her own right, published an open letter to her country. She said:

In Saudi Arabia, those who chose to rule in the name of Islam and Shari'a law have treated the law as mere ink on paper. Those who claim to use religion to protect me are the very people who took away my safety and security, for within the kingdom, those meant to be serving justice have decided that oppression should be a cause for celebration. To my fellow Saudi Arabians I say that my husband has been imprisoned so that you could live free. He stood up to the tyrants to claim your rights; he faced up to his oppressors telling them he would not tolerate their repression. Remember that history does not forget, it will exalt those who have fought for freedom and cast aside the memory of those who succumbed to a life of humiliation and servitude.

And, in a 2014 interview, Waleed told reporters, "I might get worried only about my wife and my family but in all that has happened and will happen to me, I am able to enjoy my life because I feel I am practicing that which makes me happy, which is my freedom."

What freedom was Waleed talking about? What does it mean to practice freedom?

Perhaps it means that even in the face of oppression, there can still be joy in resistance. The power to resist springs from hope and faith in the ultimate victory of justice. It is a wonderful reflection of the indomitable human spirit's desire for freedom that Waleed -- and the many human rights activists imprisoned with him -- continue to find grace and happiness in the practice of freedom and the promise of justice.


"We must demand that our media outlets continue to broadcast the heinous behavior of oppressive governments. And be assured that those governments care about their reputation on the world stage."

So we gather here to honor Waleed while he continues to practice his freedom from behind the bars of a barbaric Saudi regime that hacks off the limbs of its citizens, flogs them in public squares, and condones the stoning of women. He never wavers in his commitment to speaking truth to power.

Men and women, like Waleed, who live their lives committed to assuring that laws of justice apply to all people know that justice will not fail. Though they may be brutalized by rich men who rule from thrones of power with armies at their disposal they know that these tyrants will not endure because as Martin Luther King, sagely observed, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

Waleed Defends Human Rights

The Saudi government arrested Waleed as he stood in court and convicted him for being a fearless advocate for his clients, many of whom were accused of the same behavior that ultimately resulted in his imprisonment. He stood beside his clients as a true defender of their human rights and demanded that the Saudi Courts recognize the truth and apply the law fairly.

When his clients met to discuss the human rights of Saudi citizens and the Monarchy charged them with illegal assembly, Waleed defended them. And when Saudi Courts failed to act as independent institutions and instead caved to the Monarchy's demands for retribution, Waleed stood tall and fearlessly spoke the truth both publically and in the courts.

He is proud to have founded an NGO with a website known as the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. He holds his head high and is unrepentant for having advocated for the rights of his wife, Samar Badawi, a brave woman who dared to drive a car unchaperoned, dared to challenge a legal system that placed her under the guardianship of an abusive father, and dared to take legal action to advance women's rights.

Waleed has earned his place in prison by defending the courageous positions of human rights activists throughout Saudi Arabia including his wife's brother, the blogger Raif Badawi, who, in January of this year, was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison... a brutal sentence which justifiably continues to draw scathing criticism from around the world.

The Monarchy in Saudi Arabia is threatened by peaceful citizens who represent their clients in court, and who drink tea in cafés where they converse about building a better, progressive Saudi Arabia. When the Monarchy declared these cafe conversations illegal, Waleed was undeterred and, at great personal risk, he continued to speak publically and advocate for the creation of a Saudi Arabia where citizens can openly participate in politics, and can openly express their thoughts and practice freedom.

When the Monarchy closed the cafés, Waleed organized salons in his living room to discuss the ideas of democracy and human dignity. Tellingly, he called these salons "Smood", the Arabic word for "steadfastness."

And indeed, Waleed is steadfast. He, like most of the world's Muslims, is observant and peace loving and, as the Qur'an instructs, he is "steadfast" in his dedication to God, to human rights and to free and peaceful discourse. In the Qur'an, it is written, "You who believe, be steadfast in your devotion to God and bear witness impartially: do not let hatred of others lead you away from justice, but adhere to justice, for that is closer to awareness of God. Be mindful of God: God is well aware of all that you do" (5:8). And, God is surely aware of all Waleed has done and, just as surely, is aware of what is being done to Waleed.

The power of the King and his family is not derived from divine right but rather from wealth derived from oil pumped from the ground. They are powerful but small minded men frightened of the call for equality, frightened of the call for human rights, frightened of those who question their complete authority.

These frightened men seek to control peaceful inquiry and dissent within Saudi Arabia and then try to cloak their indefensible behavior as a directive from God; but we know that they are driven not by their piety but rather by their fear of losing absolute authority. Their pursuit of power and wealth is at the expense of peace-loving forward- thinking citizens and is a perversion of the teachings of all the world's religions.

These rich and powerful men are simply serving their own interests when they claim they alone are entitled to determine the will of God. All people, not just the powerful, struggle to understand the will of God and all people are entitled to express those efforts openly in both public and private discourse.

Waleed and the people he invited into his home gathered only to talk about religion, the word of God and politics. They exercised their right to examine these most essential questions. No ruler but a frightened, cruel, paranoid, and vindictive one tramples on the right of its own citizens to peaceful public and private discourse. The governments of the world, including most especially my own, the United States, purport to value human rights, but they are complicit in facilitating the tyrannical behavior of the Saudi government when, as the price of doing business, they silently stand by and fail to actively demand an end to these clear human rights abuses.

President Obama stood next to President Hollande in the White House this week following the tragedy in Paris and called on the nations of the world to abide by what he called their "highest ideals" in protecting human rights during these difficult times. But those same nations must know that the blood falling from the lashing of Raif Badawi is on the hands of each and every government which, by tolerating these barbarous acts, permits them to continue.

The Monarchy Protects Only Itself

Make no mistake: Waleed's continued imprisonment is no more than simple unadorned political persecution designed to further consolidate the position of a single powerful family's already entrenched stranglehold on Saudi Arabia.

Remember that Waleed was tried twice for the same crime, first in a normal criminal court and again in a so-called "anti-terrorism tribunal". After the first trial, he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment. Unsatisfied with this result, the Monarchy forced him to trial again and the predetermined verdict, under new laws that did not even exist when he engaged in the behavior on which his arrest was based, resulted in a sentence of fifteen years, which was without reason or justice.

It is clear whose interests are served by this kind of persecution. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is no safer and Islam is no stronger with Waleed behind bars. Nor is Saudi Arabia more secure since his wife was forced to sign an agreement precluding her from speaking about human rights in Saudi Arabia and banned from travelling. Nor is the future of the country brighter when Saudi children, like Waleed and Samar's young daughter, Jaud, cannot look forward to a future free from oppression.

Change Will Come

Like many heroes of civil rights movements around the world, Waleed and his family have borne the anger of a barbaric government.

But, it is not violent Jihadists who pose the greatest threat to Saudi Arabia. And it is certainly not those, like Waleed who dream of a free and peaceful Saudi Arabia. Rather, the greatest threat to Saudi Arabia is the Monarchy's own ongoing assault on basic human rights.

History shows that despotic dictatorships like Saudi Arabia cannot sustain themselves in a world that is connected and vigilant. Eventually, the dictators will be forced to concede what most of the civilized world has accepted for generations: that open discourse, the peaceful expression of free thought, and the right to peacefully assemble are the necessary pillars of a legitimate and civilized government.

The efforts of tyrannical political systems to maintain control by imposing their own ill-conceived definitions of moral and religious righteousness always result in failure. Nelson Mandela triumphed against such an unjust system. Vaclav Havel and the other signatories of Charter 77 faced persecution for their embrace of human rights; history vindicated them as it will vindicate Waleed. Their struggles left an indelible impression on their homelands; and in time, they came to be known as the creators of societies which hold paramount the protection of human rights.

Those despots who oppressed them and sought to maintain their tyrannical status quo are cast aside by history and remembered only as the monsters that we know them to be. Waleed and his fellow Saudi supporters will one day be seen as the new face of Saudi Arabia -- but for that to occur, it falls on us, the international community, to support him as well. This prize is a real step in that direction.

What Is to Be Done?

What can we do in the face of such clear injustice? For one thing, we must not allow our own governments -- indeed, the majority of the international community -- to continue to turn a blind eye to the Saudi government's flagrant violations of human rights. Unbelievably, Saudi Arabia recently gained a place on the United Nations Human Rights Council, in a voting pact with the UK. No country that prides itself on its commitment to fostering values of freedom, democracy, and self-determination has any business allowing despots to masquerade as guardians of human rights.

Indeed, just this past week, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a damning report denouncing Saudi Arabia for the illegal detention of Waleed and eight other human rights activists including Waleed's client Raif Badawi. The report correctly characterized their detention as "a reprisal for their work of protecting and defending human rights" and called on Saudi Arabia to take "steps to immediately release the detainees and provide reparations" for their illegal detention.


"We have gathered to honor Waleed's practice of freedom; the best way to demonstrate our honor is to pledge an active commitment to expanding human rights and dignity across the world."

We should follow the example set by countries that not only denounce but actually take concrete steps to oppose Saudi Arabia's disregard for human rights. Sweden has led the way in standing up to the bullies in Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Margot Wallström brought attention to the cruelty and inhumanity of Raif Badawi's flogging, saying, "If we don't defend democracy and human rights, what are we?" Her government then moved beyond mere words of disapproval and ended Sweden's decades-long, multimillion-dollar arms agreement with Saudi Arabia. That is a model of diplomacy.

The Swedes should be proud of their government. They stand by their moral convictions, even in the face of economic hardship. We must follow our guiding principles and demand that our governments follow Sweden's lead by shunning appeasement and opportunism and embracing integrity. When you leave here today, reach out to your governments and demand that they condemn Saudi Arabia's behavior.

We each must watch and respond to Saudi Arabia's attack on peaceful dissent. Moreover, we must shine a light on the behavior of all oppressive tyrannical governments like Saudi Arabia. The technology of the cellphone camera and YouTube are central to preserving, for all to see, the evil wrought by bullies and human rights violators. Never again can these oppressors deny or hide their inhumane behavior.

Beatrice Mtetwa, 2009 winner of this prize, who was beaten by police in Zimbabwe for her steadfast defense of journalists, has taught us that the very act of bearing witness is essential if we are to end the impunity of tyrants.

We must demand that our media outlets continue to broadcast the heinous behavior of oppressive governments. And be assured that those governments care about their reputation on the world stage. When we stop seeing the images of oppression, we stop responding and if that happens, those tyrants will have no reason to change their behavior.

While the media is saturated with horrible images of Jihadi violence, the corrosive effect of the denial of basic of human rights by established governments, like Saudi Arabia, is in many ways far more dangerous. Our media must focus on this less dramatic but more destructive government-sponsored terrorism.

Waleed Demonstrates the Moral Imperative

Waleed looks the despots in the eye and refuses to cease fighting. He follows in the footsteps of Winston Churchill who refused to yield to the Nazis and instructed:

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

The freedoms that many of us take for granted -- freedom of assembly, of speech, and of religion -- do not exist in Saudi Arabia. In an atmosphere of repression and intolerance, Waleed stood in court and advocated for his clients, he opened his home to the free exchange of ideas, and he wrote about the need for peaceful free expression in his country. He was met with harsh punishment. In his prison cell -- the most unforgiving and unfree of environments -- he has continued to practice freedom. He continues to dissent, and to hope, and to struggle.

As Mandela reminds us, "to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." We have gathered to honor Waleed's practice of freedom; the best way to demonstrate our honor is to pledge an active commitment to expanding human rights and dignity across the world. We must deny the legitimacy of any government that seeks to deny the human rights of its citizens.

Waleed can see the day when his countrymen will finally live in a free and open Saudi Arabia. Through the bars of his prison cell he can see that glorious day because he knows that justice will always prevail.

On Waleed's behalf, I thank you.