27th Feb 2024

Exiled Saudi dissident in Bulgaria ensnared in asylum legal limbo

  • Busmantsi detention centre, near the Bulgarian capital Sofia, has a capacity of around 400 (Photo: Global Detention Project)
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A recent decision on a detained Saudi dissident by Bulgaria's supreme administrative court has cast a long shadow over the legal system for people seeking asylum there.

Last month, the court tossed out a lower-court ruling, following a series of procedural cock-ups that risk sending 30-year old dissident Abdulrahman al-Khalidi back to Saudi Arabia — where rights defenders say he faces persecution, torture or death.

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  • Abdulrahman al-Khalidi says he may face enforced disappearance, torture, or unfair judicial procedures if returned to Saudi Arabia (Photo: Mena Rights Group)

Khalidi's efforts to get asylum in Bulgaria had been rejected, a decision upheld by the lower court as he waits at the Busmantsi detention centre, near Sofia's International Airport.

Although present at the lower court hearing, Khalidi, who also speaks English, was offered no interpretation from Bulgarian.

And lower court documents incorrectly labeled him as a Syrian national, in what the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), a civil rights NGO, says was a sloppy copy-paste taken from other cases.

"Then it was not taken into account that he has a wife and a family. It is explicitly written in the lower court's decision that he does not have a wife and a family, and he claims that he has provided evidence to the contrary," said Adela Katchaounova of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.

"And this could serve as a ground to grant him humanitarian status in Bulgaria," she added.

The supreme court ruling now means the lower court must review its initial decision — a process that could still lead to him being sent back to Saudi Arabia.

Katchaounova is not giving Khalidi counsel in Bulgaria. But she is preparing for a possible legal recourse at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, should the Bulgarian state initiate his deportation.

He has been deemed a national security threat for reasons that Katchaounova says are also unknown. "They never give the grounds. This is the problem we have here in Bulgaria," she said.

Poor health

Swiss-based human rights group, Mena Rights Group, is also advocating for his release. "In Saudi Arabia he was involved in civic and political activities, all peaceful activities," said Falah Sayed, a human rights officer at Mena.

Sayed said Khalidi was a political activist and a known dissident in Saudi Arabia from 2011 and 2013.

But an ensuing crackdown against his family forced him to flee to Egypt, then Qatar, before finally landing in Turkey where he got involved in the Saudi opposition abroad — including with murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, she added.

Khalidi had then requested asylum in Bulgaria after crossing the border from Turkey in late 2021.

But the Bulgarian state refugee agency denied his request for protection, claiming he did not present a credible case and that "official authorities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have taken" measures to democratise society.

Khalidi in turn alleges Saudi authorities had been present during his asylum interrogation in Bulgaria. He has been sitting in a cell at Busmantsi ever since, where his health has also taken a turn given the poor conditions at the detention centre, according to Sayed.

In an emailed statement to EUobserver, via Sayed, Khalidi says he suffered from severe bladder infection.

"This is because they locked us in for at least 10 hours a day and prevented us from going to the bathroom. And — God forbid — urinating in our water bottles, using them all night long for months undoubtedly causes health problems," he said.

He said he was once taken to the hospital with his hands and feet tied to the bed with heavy belts. "The police were constantly pointing their weapons at me every time I moved and they asked me to urinate on the bed or get naked in front of them," he said.

Khalidi also says that he has strong reasons to believe that he may face enforced disappearance, torture, or unfair judicial procedures if returned to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi repression on rise

Joey Shea, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Human Rights Watch, says the country has seen a wave of repression since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) ascended to power.

"MBS is 38 years old. He has not been in power very long. And yet we've seen the repression here after one year just grow inconceivably worse," she said.

This includes a Saudi court handing out a death sentence in late August to Muhammad al-Ghamdi, a 54-year old retired Saudi teacher, based solely on his Twitter, and YouTube activity. His two X accounts (formerly known as Twitter) had a combined total of 10 followers.

Saudi Arabia has also been blamed for massacring Ethiopian refugees at the border with Yemen, a charge it is has since denied.

For the EU, Saudi Arabia presents a dichotomy. Less than a month after Saudi Arabia was accused of those mass killings, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said the EU's relations with the Kingdom had been re-energised, following a meeting with MBS.

For its part, the European Commission says despite on-going judicial reform in Saudi Arabia, the overall human rights situation in the Kingdom presents challenges.

"And we have the continued application of [the] death penalty. This is this is something which the European Union is fundamentally opposed to," said Peter Stano, spokesperson for the EU's foreign policy branch, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

"We are raising all these issues with the Saudi partners, including cases of individuals," he said.

Saudi nationals have lodged under 50 asylum applications this year from January until the end of July 2023 in the EU, plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the United Kingdom.

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Germany is expanding agreements to return rejected asylum seekers to their countries of origin as part of a wider shift in Europe to curtail migration. Berlin has reached deals with Georgia and Morocco since December.


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