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4th Mar 2024

Bulgaria set to deport Saudi activist despite release order

  • Busmantsi detention centre, near the Bulgarian capital Sofia, has a capacity of around 400 (Photo: Global Detention Project)
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Bulgaria's national security agency wants to deport a detained Saudi dissident back to Riyadh — despite a court demanding his immediate release.

With his deportation order appeal due on Monday (12 February), fears are mounting among rights defenders that Bulgaria will send 30 year-old Abdulrahman al-Khalidi back to Saudi Arabia.

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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)

"The Bulgarian judiciary had clearly issued decisions in Abdulrahman's favour," said Lina Al-Hathloul from ALQST, a UK-based NGO working on promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia.

She said this included "an immediate order for his release, that was shamefully overturned by the state security without any justification."

Khalidi sought asylum in Bulgaria in 2021, fearing for his safety after pressing for constitutional reforms and the rights of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, says Amnesty International.

Last Wednesday (7 February), agents from the national security agency delivered him a deportation order. Asked to comment, the agency has yet to respond.

But his case has already shed a spotlight onto Bulgaria's judicial system, which has in the past mistaken him for a Syrian.

One court's decision to deny him asylum has since been overturned by a higher court due to such procedural cock-ups and mistakes.

It means the state agency for refugees has to rework his claim and issue a new decision.

And last month, an administrative court demanded his immediate release from the Busmantsi detention centre, near Sofia's International Airport.

'Suffering and mental torture'

In messages passed onto EUobserver, Khalid said that he has been subjected to "suffering and mental torture" over the past two years of detention in Bulgaria.

This includes being indefinitely imprisoned away from his family and children, while being kept in the dark about his case.

"Every dawn breaks without knowing whether I will be released or remain detained. And this continues for years, without a solution in sight. This is the definition of suffering," he said.

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

He was forced 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, according to Switzerland-based human rights group, Mena Rights Group.

He 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.

That assessment comes despite a Saudi court handing out a death sentence last year to a retired teacher, based solely on his Twitter, and YouTube activity, which had a combined total of 10 followers.

Khalidi also alleges that the Saudis are involved in his case.

"Investigators have told me that there is no way for me to obtain international protection in Bulgaria, and that Bulgaria does not want to grant asylum to Saudis within its borders," he said.

"They clearly stated that coordination with the Saudi authorities is ongoing for my repatriation," he added, noting that despite winning in court, he still received a deportation order before his asylum case had been concluded.

"Continuing the procedures here is just a choice between slow death in detention in Bulgaria or quick death after deportation," he said.

His possibly imminent deportation has since attracted condemnation by Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders.

Last week, she said sending Khalidi back to Saudi Arabia "would run counter to Bulgaria's commitment to non-refoulement" given the wave of repression since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ascended to power.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a civil rights NGO, are also preparing to defend him at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

"We are scared actually, that he's in imminent danger. Today's the last day for appeal," said Adela Kachaunov from the committee.

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