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June 21, 2019

Saudi lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair to receive 2019 ABA International Human Rights Award

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2019 — The American Bar Association announced today that it will honor Saudi lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair with its 2019 ABA International Human Rights Award in recognition of his work to advance human rights and advocate for justice in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The award will be presented during a dinner at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, August 8, 7:30 p.m. at the Westin St. Francis Hotel.

The International Human Rights Award was established to honor and give public recognition to a lawyer, human rights luminary or international human rights organization that has made an exceptional contribution to the advancement of human rights outside of the United States. The award is given on behalf of the ABA Center for Human Rights, Section of International Law, Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, Section of Litigation and Rule of Law Initiative.

Abu al-Khair is the founder of Monitor for Human Rights, one of only a few human rights organizations in Saudi Arabia, which he established in 2008, just a year after he began practicing law. As an attorney, Abu al-Khair dedicated his career to defending human rights and the right to freedom of expression, even after government authorities banned him in 2009 from representing specific defendants in courts. Abu al-Khair also used his legal background to advocate for an elected parliament, independent judiciary and other democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia.

Following several years of interrogations, government surveillance, a 2012 ban that limited his travel out of the country and other harassment by Saudi authorities, Abu al-Khair was arrested in 2014 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his human rights activism under an “anti-terrorism” law that was put in place by Saudi Arabia halfway through his trial. When Abu al-Khair refused to apologize for his alleged offenses, his full sentence was upheld by a Saudi appeals court in 2015. Abu al-Khair remains imprisoned, now at the Dahban Central Prison in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“Waleed abu al-Khair’s courage promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia should be lauded by all lawyers,” said ABA President Bob Carlson. “He has made tremendous sacrifices, including to his own liberty, to improve the lives of others in his home country. It is our hope that this award shines a spotlight on his work, helps free him from his unwarranted incarceration and inspires legal professionals around the world to continue to work for justice and the rule of law.”

Even before his imprisonment, Abu al-Khair was known worldwide for his contributions toward the protection and enforcement of internationally protected human rights and the advancement of democratic reform in Saudi Arabia. Among his notable cases, Abu al-Khair in 2010 represented Samar Badawi, a Saudi woman who was detained in jail for seven months because of accusations of disobeying her father. Abu al-Khair launched a campaign on social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook that demanded her discharge and published a blog to post updates on her case, leading to Badawi’s release from prison. Two years later, Abu al-Khair also represented Samar Badawi’s brother, Raif, founder of the Saudi Liberal Network internet discussion group, after he was arrested for establishing the network and for apostasy, the abandonment of Islam by a Muslim in word or through deed.

According to Human Rights Watch, Abu al-Khair was transferred at least five times to various prisons before being sent to Dhahban Central Prison. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has twice reviewed the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s detention of Abu al-Khair. In its latest opinion, in 2018, the UN group determined that the arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentencing of Abu al-Khair lacked any legal basis and the actions were directed at restricting his freedoms of opinion and expression where there were not legitimate grounds to do so.

In addition to the ABA recognition, Abu al-Khair has received numerous international prizes for his work, including the Olof Palme Prize (2012), Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights International Prize (2015), Law Society of Ontario’s Human Rights Award (2017) and Right to Livelihood Award (2018) from German-Swedish philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull.

Click here for a photo of Waleed Abu al-Khair.

The 2019 ABA Annual Meeting will be held August 7-13 at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis. Reporters may request credentials online here.

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