My old friend, Dan Arshack, took on a cause pro bono that few in the United States either know or care about. He’s had a lonely time of it, despite the nature of the fight. It involves a lawyer imprisoned for doing his job. Except that it happened in Saudi Arabia, and the lawyer’s name is Waleed Abulkhair.
Yes, you never heard the name before. You probably didn’t read this Huffington Post article about him. We’re on outrage overload, and there are just way too many things at home to be concerned about to spend much time or energy on bad stuff happening on the other side of the world. But Danny has, on his own dime, and the least I can do to support his efforts is use my soapbox to spread the word.
Waleed Abulkhair remains in prison, even as he won the Ludovic Trarieux Human Rights Award, first given to Nelson Mandela. So Danny hopped a plane to Geneva to accept the award on his client’s behalf. This is what he said.
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.
And what did this lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, do that caused the Saudis to imprison him?
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.
Read Danny’s speech. If nothing else, let it remind you that there are risks associated with speaking truth to power, and that there are people in this world who suffer the risks to do so. Think of this the next time you feel reluctant to speak words because someone might think ill of you and you can’t bear the possibility that doing what you believe to be right could make you unpopular with powerful people.
The New York Times gives Waleed a brief mention in a story about the Sakharov Prize given his client, Raif Badawi, a blogger, who is certainly a worthy recipient in his own right:
Mr. Badawi, 31, was arrested in 2012 — on charges that included apostasy, cybercrime and disobeying his father — after he started a website that criticized the Saudi religious establishment. In 2013, he was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 blows with a cane. The next year, he was resentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 blows with a cane. He was not convicted of apostasy, which carries a death sentence.
But what of Waleed, the lawyer who stood beside Badawi?
The authorities also jailed Mr. Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, the founder of a group called Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. He was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison on charges of undermining the government, inciting public opinion and insulting the judiciary.
And here, in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, lawyers whine about how they are forced to pass a bar exam and prohibited from lying on their websites. And are instructed by the least accomplished among us that it’s more important to be civil than to put one’s client’s interests first, no matter what it takes.
Congratulations, Waleed Abulkhair. Congratulations, Raif Badawi. Thank you, Dan Arshack.