Middle East

Saudi campaigner Mohammad al-Qahtani goes on trial

Rights activist Mohammad al-Qahtani
Image caption Mr Qahtani (centre) and Mr Hamid (right) talk outside of the courtroom in Riyadh

Prominent human rights activist Mohammad al-Qahtani has gone on trial in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Qahtani, an economics professor, faces nine charges, including setting up an unlicensed organisation and breaking allegiance to the king.

Another rights campaigner, Abdullah al-Hamid, also appeared in court.

Human rights groups say political activists are regularly jailed for their work in Saudi Arabia, some without access to lawyers.

Mr Qahtani, a co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), is one of several Saudi human rights activists who are being tried on similar charges.

If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

Mr Hamid, who is also on trial, is another founder of ACPRA.

The BBC's Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher says supporters and relatives of Mr Qahtani and Mr Hamed were allowed into the courtroom but were later ordered to leave by the judge.

During the hearing, they were using Twitter to report on proceedings, giving the opening of the trial a measure of transparency that is unusual in Saudi Arabia, he says.

Mr Qahtani said he was told by the court to issue a new written response to his charges by Monday.

Speaking afterwards to the BBC, he said: "We have been doing our work for several years. The authorities kept quiet for a long time, but now they are coming after us hard. We are not going to be silent. We will continue to do our work."

Amnesty International says Mr Qahtani faces other charges which include inciting public opinion by accusing authorities of human rights abuses, and turning international organisations against the country.

In April, rights activist Mohammed al-Bajadi received a four-year jail sentence, in what Amnesty said demonstrated "a blatant disregard for his fundamental rights".

Saudi Arabia's interior ministry has said there are no political prisoners in the kingdom.

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