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Saudi activist held in Bulgaria 'hours or days' from deportation, lawyers fear

A Bulgarian court ordered Abdulrahman al-Khalidi to be released last month. Now supporters say he's at imminent risk of being returned to Saudi
Abdulrahman al-Khalidi, seen with Alqst's Lina al-Hathloul, has been detained in Bulgaria since 2021 (Lina al-Hathloul)

A Saudi Arabian dissident imprisoned in Bulgaria is at imminent risk of deportation within “hours or days” according to his lawyers and supporters.

Abdulrahman al-Khalidi, who has advocated for democratic reforms in the kingdom, including as part of the "bee army" with slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is at risk of immediate arrest and torture if returned, the lawyers told Middle East Eye on Friday.

His case has attracted online threats and harassment, including from high-profile government-linked personalities, calling him a traitor and urging his swift deportation.

"He is well-known by the authorities. He has been persecuted," Falah Sayed, human rights officer with the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group, said.

"He is someone that the authorities absolutely want."

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Khalidi is imprisoned in Busmantsi Detention Centre in Bulgaria where he has fruitlessly sought asylum since 2021.

On Wednesday, Khalidi was visited by someone from Bulgarian state security who brought a deportation order, Sayed said.

Khalidi refused to sign it because it was in Bulgarian.

Then on Thursday, Sayed said she and others supporting Khalidi learned that his asylum case had been rejected by Bulgaria's State Agency for Refugees, putting him at risk of imminent deportation.

"His deportation is now a matter of days or hours," she said.

Active in Saudi opposition abroad

Khalidi was studying law in Saudi Arabia in 2011 when he started his activism, calling for the rights of prisoners and constitutional reforms in the kingdom, according to a legal complaint compiled by MENA Rights Group.

In early 2013, Saudi authorities undertook a campaign of mass arrests in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. Many of Khalidi's friends were arrested.

Khalidi decided he needed to flee the kingdom to avoid arrest. He sought refuge first in Egypt, then Qatar, and finally in Turkey where he stayed for seven years.

In Turkey, he worked as a journalist writing articles critical of the Saudi government under pseudonyms and was active in the 'Bee Army', a social media campaign to counter pro-government disinformation campaigns that Khashoggi led. 

After Khashoggi's murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, Khalidi was afraid to renew his Saudi identification. So his legal IDs expired, leaving him unable to register his marriage, enroll his children in school, or ensure they could obtain healthcare.

In October 2021, he headed to Bulgaria, crossing the border on foot. He was soon arrested and he has been detained in Bulgaria since then.

'Slow death in detention'

His asylum case, which included documentation of the social media threats he has received, was rejected by a Bulgarian court in 2022.

Authorities said that Saudi Arabia had taken measures to democratise society and did not consider him to be at risk, his lawyers said.

He has been appealing the decision ever since. In September 2023, Bulgaria's Supreme Court found his case had been marred by procedural errors and ordered a retrial in a lower court. 

Two months later, the lower court sent his case back to the State Refugee Agency for reconsideration. On 17 January, an administrative court in Sofia ordered his release.

'Continuing procedures here is just a choice between slow death in detention in Bulgaria or quick death after deportation'

- Abdulrahman Alkhalidi

But on 22 January, the National State Security Agency issued an administrative decision rejecting his release without explaining their grounds, and, four days later, the administrative court refused his release.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor said in a tweet on Wednesday that it was "extremely disturbing" that Khalidi was threatened with imminent deportation.  

"This would run counter to Bulgaria’s commitment to non-refoulement - especially as Saudi Arabia is such a dangerous place for [human rights defenders]," she wrote on X.

Khalidi, in messages passed to MEE on Friday, expressed frustration that despite court judgements in his favour, he had been handed a deportation order before his asylum case had been concluded.

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

Khalidi also said that the years of detention and the conditions in which has been held - which he said included physical and psychological threats - have taken their toll on him. 

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"Can you imagine being indefinitely imprisoned away from your family and children, unable to work or take care of them, in administrative detention where you have no knowledge of your status," he wrote.

"Every dawn breaks without knowing whether you will become free or continue to be detained, and this continues for years without a solution in sight."

Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications with the UK-based Alqst, travelled to Sofia to testify in Khalidi's appeal in December and is in regular contact with him. She said three years of his life had been lost unjustly.

"Bulgarian judges have ordered twice decisions in his interest, one in which they ordered his immediate release, and one in which they considered the refusal to grant him asylum to be null, but he nevertheless remains in arbitrary detention without any credible charges,"  Hathloul told MEE.

"This nightmare should end and Abdrulrahman should be allowed to pursue a normal life in a country that will protect him."

The Bulgarian foreign ministry did not respond to MEE's request for comment.

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