10 Egyptian Nubians Held Unjustly in Saudi Arabia

Human Rights Watch

Saudi Arabian authorities have unjustly detained 10 Nubian Egyptians for 20 months on abusive speech, association, and terrorism charges, Human Rights Watch said today.

Saudi authorities arrested four of the men in October 2019 after their Nubian community organization organized an event commemorating the contributions of Nubian soldiers in the October 1973 war with Israel. Saudi authorities released them later that year but rearrested the four men, as well as six additional men in July 2020. The authorities should immediately release the Nubians and allow them to leave the country. The next trial session is due to be held on March 27.

"Saudi authorities arbitrarily arrested these Nubian men seemingly in reprisal for expressing their cultural heritage," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Saudi authorities are spending billions of dollars hosting major sporting and cultural events to deflect from the country's poor image, but these arrests further demonstrate how little regard the government has for anyone else's rights and culture."

Nubian Egyptians are a minority ethnic group in Egypt and Sudan. The Egyptian government has subjected Nubians in Egypt to repression and multiple forced displacements.

In September 2021, the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia's abusive counterterrorism tribunal in Riyadh, brought charges against the Nubians, charging them with spreading false and malicious rumors on social media, establishing an unlicensed association, and supporting a terrorist group. During the third trial session, on January 24, 2022, the court postponed the trial until March 27.

All 10 detained men are community leaders of the Egyptian Nubian diaspora in Riyadh. Eight are current or former members of the Dahmit Nubian Village Association, a Nubian cultural society in Riyadh that had planned the event honoring the Nubian soldiers for the evening of October 25, 2019, their relatives told Human Rights Watch. The event was cancelled after Saudi police summoned the men for interrogation. Officers questioned them about whether the event was intended to deliver political messages, as well as about the activities of the Nubian community in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Nubian rights and issues more broadly, relatives said.

Saudi police soon released six of the men but continued to hold four, including Adel Sayed Ibrahim Fakir and Dr. Farajallah Ahmed Yousif, two prominent Nubian community leaders, relatives said.

Officers asked one of the detainees why a picture of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was not included on an event poster that displayed images of prominent Nubian Egyptian participants in the 1973 war. Those shown included Field Marshal Ahmed Hussein Tantawy and Ahmed Idris, a Nubian soldier who had suggested using the Nubian language as a military code during the war, one relative said. The four men still held were released in December 2019.

The Dahmit Nubian Village Association is registered with the Egyptian consulate in Riyadh, a relative said, adding that the association and other Nubian cultural societies are non-political groups established to preserve Nubian cultural heritage, traditions, and language.

On October 29, 2019, the Egyptian consulate in Riyadh released a statement calling on Egyptian citizens in Saudi Arabia to "respect the laws and regulations of the Kingdom." The statement said that it is illegal for non-Saudi nationals to "establish groups or bodies" and called for existing entities to be abolished.

"Instead of defending the men, the Egyptian consulate sided with the Saudis," a relative told Human Rights Watch.

The General Directorate of Investigation (Al-Mabahith) re-arrested Fakir on July 14, 2020, in a dawn raid in which officers ransacked his home, seized his electronic devices and cash, and blindfolded and handcuffed him, relatives said. The next day, the investigation officials arrested the other nine men in similar raids.

After the arrests, family members asked Saudi police, the Interior Ministry, and the Egyptian consulate for information on the men's whereabouts but received no response, relatives said. After two months family members said they began receiving calls from the men from al-Ha'ir prison. The men told their families that they had no access to legal assistance, nor were they informed of any charges against them.

In May 2021, Saudi authorities transferred the group to Asir prison in Abha city, where they continued to be denied access to legal counsel.

In early September, the Specialized Criminal Court held its first session and informed the men of the speech and "terrorism" charges against them. During the second session, on November 10, the defendants handed written defense statements to their court-appointed lawyer but were not permitted to speak with the lawyer.

Relatives said they had attempted to contact Egypt's Ministries of Immigration, and Foreign Affairs and the prime minister to urge them to intervene but received no response.

In early 2020, 40 Nubian community organizations in Saudi Arabia and Egypt formed a coalition to demand that President al-Sisi respect the Nubian right of return to Egypt. Article 236 in Egypt's 2014 constitution guarantees a right of return for Nubians to their original territories within ten years, by 2024.

"Saudi Arabia is punishing these men and denying their basic rights for merely trying to peacefully express their cultural heritage," Page said. "The Egyptian government's apparent support for their arrest reflects decades of repression against that country's Nubian people, who here simply tried to celebrate their history and culture."

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