This is a translation of an article written by Saudi human rights activist Ali Al Hattab:
The dangers of officials’ immunity and absolute authority on individuals’ freedom of opinion and expression in society
We all agree on the importance and the necessity of laws in regulating social interactions on all levels to ensure that these interactions do not clash or conflict. Since the emergence of humankind, man has been on a constant quest for mechanisms to organize his public life, beginning with his formulation of simple social norms and ending with advanced legislative constitutions which are considered the highest canopy for laws and regulations, with the objective of serving society and establishing peace and security within their specific frameworks of time and place.
It is the “holy union” between immunity and absolute authority granted to administrative governors and its obstruction of the right of opinion and speech for all individuals in society, or what is termed “freedom of opinion.” This is the first and foremost civil liberty sought by individuals; unless a person is emboldened to speak with complete freedom, he will never dare to express his ambitions or object to and reject all forms of injustice and tyranny.
The mechanism of immunity and authority on all legal levels has become the “big stick” that does not differentiate between legitimate and non-legitimate demands. Authorities use it to gag mouths and confiscate freedoms and demands regardless of their orientation, under the pretext of royal or princely immunity. This has led to the destabilization of civil peace and the natural social balance between ruler and ruled, especially with regards to transparent expression, accountability and liability.
Officials have striven to make themselves totally immune to criticism, placing dictates in articles of law in order to achieve personal gains and ambitions independent of legitimacy and the popular will. As a result, hope was lost, demands for reform aborted, the initiators of these demands imprisoned.
To follow are some examples of constitutional codes and articles which make clear the danger of immunity to freedom of opinion and expression in each member state of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the resulting legal liabilities and penalties.
Article 54: “The prince is the head of state and his royal person is not to be touched.” Kuwaiti constitution, 1962.
In 2013, Sarah Al-Diress was sentenced to one year and 8 months in prison for tweets she posted on her Twitter account, for which she was accused of insulting the royal person of the prince. Leader and former parliament member Msallam Al-Barrak also received a preliminary sentence of 5 years for insulting the royal person in a speech he gave in October, 2013.
Qatari Poet Mohammed Al-Ajami sentenced to 15 years for writing a poem.
Article: 64: “The prince is the head of state. His person is inviolable and respecting him is obligatory.” Qatari constitution, 2004.
Mohamed Rashed Hassan Al-Ajami “Ibn Aldeeb” was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years for a poem that became popular on YouTube and which was considered incitement to overthrow the regime and an insult to the ruling prince.
“The king is the head of state and its nominal representative, and is inviolable. He is the trustworthy protector of the religion and the homeland and the symbol of national unity.” Constitution of Bahrain, 2002.
Activist Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to 3 years on the charge of participating in an illegal assembly, insulting officials and questioning their patriotism.
Article 41: “The sultan is the head of state and the supreme commander of the armed forces. His person is inviolable and cannot be touched; respecting him is obligatory and his commands are to be obeyed.” The Basic System of Government, 1996.
In December 2012, The Court of Appeals sentenced Basma Al-Kayoumi, Said El-Hashemi and a group of Omani activists to terms ranging from 6 months to a year on the alleged charges of ridiculing the sultan, the violation of the Information Act, illegal assembly and disturbing the peace.
Saudi Mohammed Al Qahtani serving a 10 year sentence for political & human activism
The basic system of government in Saudi Arabia has no articles referring to the criticism of royal personages, yet many demands for rights and political liberties have been rejected, with those demanding them penalized under other punitive regulations – such as the system for combatting IT crimes which states in article six: “Punishment by imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years and a fine not exceeding 3 million Riyals, or either of these punishments for anyone who produces material detrimental to the public good, religious values, public morals or the sanctity of private life, etc…”
The Criminal Court of Riyadh ruled for the dissolution of the ACPRA Society, the confiscation of its money, termination of its activities and the imprisonment of its members Abdullah Al-Hamed (11 years) and Mohamed Fahd Al- Qahtani (10 years) for “cyber crimes” based on the above-mentioned article six, because they were demanding political and constitutional reform.
United Arab Emirates
Article 29: “A prison term and fine of up to one million Dirhams for any person using information technology with the intention of satirizing or damaging the reputation and standing of the state or any of its institutions, including the president, vice president, the rulers of its emirates, crown princes or their deputies, the state flag, national security, the state emblem and national anthem or national symbols.” Law for the combat of cyber crimes, 2012.
Activist Waleed Al-Shehhi, arrested in May of 2013, was sentenced to 2 years plus a fine of half a million for tweets posted on his Twitter account about indicted Islamists.
These in addition to hundreds of other cases and examples in the same context, whereas international law is clear in stating that state officials with their wide range of authority must necessarily be liable to a higher degree of criticism than the average citizen.
The UN Commission on Human Rights which issued binding standards for freedom of opinion and expression in article 19 of its Declaration, has made clear that insulting public figures does not justify penalties. It stressed that public figures “including those who exercise the highest political authority such as state presidents and governments” are legitimate targets for criticism.
The aura with which the gulf rulers have surrounded themselves is an exaggerated form of sanctity, and gives them expansive legal grounds to try those who demand political reform and other rights, especially as the position of the ruler is not merely a ceremonial one as is the case in most Western monarchies; It is an administrative position with broad executive powers directly linked to the needs, ambitions and destinies of their peoples.
Hence citizens have a legitimate right to criticize the performance of the ruler and to monitor him, away from personal insults and abuse, in an effort to improve living standards and the quality of life. The constitutions of advanced countries allow for the monitoring of the president and criticism of his performance and even subjecting him to enquiries in certain circumstances, through elected parliaments.
- The rewriting of the articles of the constitution and penal regulations to commensurate with freedom of opinion and expression, and to ensure the implementation of international agreements and conventions.
- The establishment of precise criteria based on international standards to clarify and define the basic principles of the right to freedom of expression.
- The annulment of all laws that obstruct freedom of opinion and expression.
- The immediate and unconditional release of all political activists and defenders of human rights who have been imprisoned for practicing their right to freedom of opinion and expression, in addition to dropping all charges related to their practice of freedom of opinion and expression.
- The ratification of a new charter that irrefutably endorses the right to freedom of opinion and expression.