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Bulgaria: The Alarming Case of Detained Saudi Journalist Abdulrahman al-Khalidi

Saudi political activist Abdulrahman al-Khalidi (Source:
Saudi political activist Abdulrahman al-Khalidi (Source:

Bulgaria’s extremely long immigration detention of a Saudi law student and human rights activist reveals the degrading conditions in which migrants and asylum seekers are detained in the country. It also reflects a broader trend in Europe and globally: the de facto use of immigration detention for purposes that may have nothing to do with migration.

Saudi law student and political activist Abdulrahman al-Khalidi has been detained in Bulgaria’s Busmantsi Detention Centre since November 2021, where he faces the risk of deportation despite well-founded fears of persecution and torture in Saudi Arabia

His case has been the centre of a broad-based civil society campaign calling on Bulgaria to release al-Khalidi and not deport him. A March 2024 open letter signed by the MENA Rights Group, the Bulgarian Helsinki Society, the International Service for Human Rights, and more than a dozen other NGOs stated: “If deported, al-Khalidi would be at real risk of torture and other serious human rights violations due to his political opinions and activism in Saudi Arabia. We urge the Bulgarian authorities to respect their legal obligations under international, European Union and domestic law by immediately halting al-Khalidi’s deportation, releasing him from detention and reconsidering his application for international protection in a fair asylum procedure.”

The circumstances of the case have been widely reported: Abdulrahman al-Khalidi’s path to a detention cell began when he spoke out about human rights abuses in his home country. He was an outspoken advocate for democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia and was involved with various civil society campaigns. Following the mass arrests in Saudi Arabia in 2013, during which many of al-Khalidi’s peers were arrested and tortured, he decided to flee the country, reaching Egypt, Qatar, and then Turkey, where he remained for seven years. While in exile, he continued his work aimed at countering pro-government disinformation and defending the rights of political prisoners.

In October 2018, fellow Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which dissuaded al-Khalidi from renewing his legal residency in Turkey. In October 2021, while al-Khalidi was crossing by foot the Turkish-Bulgarian border without a visa, he was arrested and transferred to the Busmantsi Detention Centre near Sofia’s International Airport.

Despite presenting evidence of the threats he received due to his activism, his asylum application was rejected on the basis that his intentions were not deemed “humanitarian.” He presented an appeal to the Administrative Court in Sofia, but it was rejected in February 2023. Thanks in part to the support of MENA Rights Group who submitted his case to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in September 2023, Bulgaria’s Supreme Court declared the case compromised by procedural errors and requested a retrial. In January 2024, he finally received a release order. However, only a few days later, the National State Security Agency rejected his release, without substantiating its grounds. In February, al-Khalidi was issued with an order for immediate deportation.

Observers decried that deporting al-Khalidi would expose him to serious risk of arrest, torture, and other human rights violations. According to Falah Sayed, a human rights officer at MENA Rights Group, “he is well-known by the authorities. He has been persecuted” and he is wanted by the Saudi government. Human Rights Watch has consistently condemned widespread abuses within Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system. As Abdulrahman al-Khalidi stated himself, “If I’m deported to Saudi Arabia I’d face prison, unfair trial, torture, forcible disappearance or even execution.”

Amnesty International stresses that deporting Abdulrahman al-Khalidi will represent a serious violation of Bulgaria’s commitments under international, European and domestic law, “including its own constitution, which states that Bulgaria shall grant asylum to foreigners persecuted for their opinions and activity in defence of internationally recognised rights and freedoms.” This would entail, other actors emphasise, that Bulgaria would violate Article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Article 33 of the Geneva Refugee Convention and Protocol, and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Broader concerns about the Bulgarian immigration detention system

Research partners have informed the GDP that since his administrative incarceration, al-Khalidi has been held in the Busmantsi detention facility under “absolutely degrading and inhumane conditions.” Moreover, it has been brought to the GDP’s attention that recently he was subject to severe beatings from the officers of the centre. According to reports, on 31 March 2024, al-Khalidi was assaulted by the security staff after he offered food to co-detainees who were fasting. He was repeatedly hit on his face and chest for an hour, was choked, and then handcuffed to his bed for an extended period. He currently endures serious injuries to his face and torso, including suspected fractures to his jaw and ribs. Allegedly, he received no medical attention despite his requests. 

The GDP has long documented Bulgaria’s migration-related detention practices. In 2023, detentions in the country were at the highest levels since 2015. Particularly worrying is that conditions inside Bulgarian detention facilities remain inadequate, especially for what relates to hygiene, nutrition, and healthcare. Lacking interpretation services at the national borders and in detention centres is another area of concern.

Further reports bring attention to appalling human rights violations on the Bulgarian border with Turkey, including “inhumane and illegal practices” imposed on irregular migrants as they are forcibly removed from the country, such as leaving them naked and deprived of all their belongings. Reportedly, Frontex and the European Commission have turned a blind eye to Bulgaria’s repeated breach of human rights on its border with Turkey. They have tripled the number of officers in those areas and continue to consider Bulgaria’s inclusion in the Schengen Area, despite spreading anti-migrant and xenophobic misinformation campaigns in the country.

Other observers have importantly pointed to “the urgent need for comprehensive and systemic reforms” within the immigration detention system in Bulgaria.

Arbitrary detention Bulgaria Deportation Ending Detention Europe Human Rights MENA Torture