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Human Rights

Saudi Dissident’s Detention in Bulgarian Migrant Center Illegal—Rights Group

Saudi dissident Abdulrahman Al-Khalidi says he is being kept in appalling conditions as he waits for the Bulgarian courts to confirm his asylum application. Credit: Supplied

Saudi dissident Abdulrahman Al-Khalidi says he is being kept in appalling conditions as he waits for the Bulgarian courts to confirm his asylum application. Credit: Supplied

BRATISLAVA, Jun 4 2024 (IPS) - When Abdulrahman Al-Khalidi fled Turkey for Bulgaria after his fellow Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, he thought he was heading for safety and sanctuary in the European Union.

But, he says, he instead would end up facing the exact opposite.

“When I came to Bulgaria, I thought I was going into a European asylum system, but what I signed up to was actually a slavery contract. Where I am now, they can just treat you like animals,” he tells IPS.

Al-Khalidi is speaking from the Busmantsi migrant detention center outside the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, where he has been held since November 2021.

He says that since arriving there, he has been subjected to a “nightmare” of inexplicable detention in appalling conditions and numerous breaches of his rights, including a police beating. He has tried to take his own life and says his mental health has suffered dramatically during his time there.

“I am being treated unfairly and illegally. What is happening to me doesn’t make sense to me or to anyone else. It has been very difficult for me mentally here. Every day I wait for someone to come and tell me I am free to go, but it never happens,” he says.

Al-Khalidi, a political activist and a known dissident, arrived in Bulgaria in October 2021.

A campaigner for human rights and advocate for democratic reforms, along with prominent Saudi figures such as Khashoggi, he left his home country in the wake of mass arrests following the Arab Spring. He sought refuge abroad, first traveling to Egypt, then staying in Qatar and Turkey, where he worked as a journalist writing critical articles about the Saudi regime, before heading to the EU to apply for asylum.

He was detained crossing the border into Bulgaria and claimed asylum. But it was denied by Bulgaria’s Refugee Agency, which decided Saudi authorities had taken steps to democratize society and rejected his claim of asylum on humanitarian grounds.

This was despite Al-Khalidi’s protests, and warnings from human rights groups that he would be in serious danger if he were to be returned to Saudi Arabia.

“If I get sent back to Saudi Arabia, I will 100 percent be killed or will be ‘disappeared’ in prison,” he says.

He launched an appeal against the decision but this was rejected by a lower court. He then took his case to the Supreme Court, which last month (APR) ruled that the State Refugee Agency must reconsider his asylum request. It said the reason given for initially rejecting it—a recommendation from Bulgaria’s National Security Agency that Al-Khalidi posed a security risk to Bulgaria—had not been substantiated.

A decision from the State Refugee Agency on his asylum is expected within months.

Human rights campaigners say they see no reason why it should not be granted.

“I have never come across a case of a refugee that is as clear as that of Abdulrahman’s,” Victor Lilov, member of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, told IPS.

Al-Khalidi himself says that he has lost faith in the asylum process in Bulgaria.

“I don’t trust the authorities anymore,” he says.

His mistrust comes after spending the last two and a half years fighting not just to have his asylum request properly dealt with, but also against what he and rights activists believe is his unfair and, following a recent court ruling, unlawful continued detention at the Busmantsi centre.

Under Bulgarian migration regulations, asylum seekers should only be put in closed centers, such as the Busmantsi facility, as a temporary measure while their identity and the facts around their asylum application are established. They should not be held there solely on the grounds that they have claimed asylum. There is, however, a provision under which a migrant can be held in closed facilities if they are deemed a threat to national security.

Al-Khalidi has been in the Busmantsi centre since just a few weeks after his initial arrest.

He initially lodged a legal complaint over his detention in 2022, but that was rejected by a lower court and he was ordered to remain detained at the centre.

He describes conditions there as appalling, with inadequate medical care, a lack of basic hygiene facilities, insect infestations causing infections and diseases, and that it is run “like a prison” with strict restrictions on movements and freedoms for those housed there.

He also claims that at the end of March, security officers at the facility attacked him after he offered food to others detained at the centre. He was taken to the toilets, where there are no cameras and repeatedly beaten and choked for an hour before being taken back to his room, where he was handcuffed to his bed for another two and a half hours.

He says his ordeal over the last few years has taken a huge mental and physical toll on him, which has only been worsened by what he says have been inexplicable decisions by Bulgarian authorities in his case.

In January of this year, the Supreme Court overturned the 2022 lower court ruling on his continued detention and ordered his immediate release. But it was blocked by the National Security Agency, again on the grounds that he presented a threat to national security.

Al-Khalidi denies posing any threat to national security and says he cannot understand why he remains at the detention centre.

“I don’t know what to do anymore. I can’t see how they can still keep me here,” he says.

Lilov said his continued detention was unlawful.

“The Supreme Court decision of January 18 to release Abdulrahman was immediate and non-appealable. The State Refugee Agency and the National Security Agency have so far refused to implement this decision, making his detention unlawful,” he said.

“This ‘accommodation’ centre for migrants is generally intended for those who have fully exhausted all procedures and have extradition orders and are waiting there for the appropriate transport. Only in exceptional cases does the law allow asylum seekers to be accommodated in closed places until the circumstances requiring their detention are no longer present.

“In the case of Abdulrahman, we have decisions of last resort from the Supreme Court saying that he should be released and that the State Refugee Agency should grant him asylum status. I really don’t understand the reasons behind the Bulgarian authorities’ persistence [to continue to detain him],” added Lilov.

Meanwhile, Al-Khalidi continues to face the threat of deportation to Saudi Arabia, despite the Supreme Court ruling.

On February 5, Al-Khalidi was served with a deportation order by the National Security Agency. He has appealed against this.

In response to questions from rights groups and local media about Al-Khalidi’s situation, the Interior Ministry has confirmed this order should not be enforced until a final ruling on his asylum status is made.

Human rights organisations campaigning for his release say Al-Khalidi’s deportation is likely to be in breach of international refugee conventions and Bulgaria’s international obligations on non-refoulement, given Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and documented treatment of political dissidents.

They say he would be at risk of arrest, torture, and potentially the death penalty for his political views and activism.

“The Saudi regime treats political dissidents in a very harsh way. If he is sent back, Abdulrahman will also face very harsh treatment,” said Lilov. “Bulgaria must give him asylum.”

The Bulgarian Interior Ministry did not respond to requests from IPS for comment.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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