Swedish group: Imprisoned Saudi activist dies in custody

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — The foundation behind a renowned Swedish prize known as the “Alternative Nobel” said that one of its 2018 award recipients, imprisoned Saudi activist Abdullah al-Hamid, died on Friday in custody in a hospital in Saudi Arabia.

The group said al-Hamid, who was serving an 11-year prison sentence, was taken to hospital after suffering from ill-health in a Riyadh prison earlier this year. He subsequently had a stroke and fell into a coma in early April. The foundation, which cited unnamed activists in Saudi Arabia for al-Hamid’s death, said he was repeatedly denied crucial medical care and “paid the ultimate price for his convictions.”

Ole von Uexkull, head of the Right Livelihood Foundation, which awards the 1 million kronor ($99,000) prize, blamed Saudi authorities for his death, saying that al-Hamid’s “unlawful imprisonment and inhumane treatment … led to his death.”

“We hold Saudi authorities directly responsible for al-Hamid’s death, as they have deliberately denied him access to proper medical care for many months during his imprisonment,” von Uexkull added in a statement.

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Human Rights Watch commented on the news of the activist’s death, saying it is “unconscionable that Abdullah al-Hamid was forced to spend his final years in prison merely for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s rampant human rights abuses.”

There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia, which does not typically comment on the state of its prisoners or their health.

Al-Hamid co-founded with Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known by its Arabic acronym HASEM. In 2013, they were sentenced to 11 and 10 years respectively. Soon after, other verdicts followed against nearly a dozen members of the rights group.

The sentences came in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring protests movements that engulfed the Middle East.

In 2018, the pair received the Right Livelihood Award together with activist and lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair “for their visionary and courageous efforts, guided by universal human rights principles, to reform the totalitarian political system in Saudi Arabia.”

Al-Khair, who defended a blogger sentenced to prison and lashings over his posts, was arrested in 2014 for signing a statement with dozens of others calling for reforms in the kingdom. He later received a 15-year sentence for “disobeying the ruler” and “harming the reputation of the state by communicating with international organizations,” likely over his work as an outspoken activist.

Created in 1980, the annual Right Livelihood Award honors efforts that the prize founder, Swedish-German philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull, felt were being ignored by the Nobel Prize committee.

The activist Gulf Center for Human Rights said al-Hamid had been told by a doctor months ago that he needed urgent treatment for his heart. The group said it believes Saudi authorities “intentionally withheld medical treatment from Dr. Al-Hamid, which caused his death.”

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s research director for the Middle East, described al-Hamid as “a fearless champion for human rights in Saudi Arabia.”

“He, and all other prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia, should never have been in jail in the first place,” she said in a statement released by Amnesty.

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Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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