NEW YORK — Abdullah al-Hamid, an intellectual and human-rights activist whose calls for reforming Saudi Arabia’s monarchy made him one of the kingdom’s most prominent and persistent dissidents and led to frequent prison terms, died April 24 in detention. He was 69.
His death was reported by the human rights group Amnesty International, which had been tracking his case. It said that he had been in a coma since having a stroke April 9.
Mr. Hamid, who had hypertension, was advised by a doctor three months before his death that he needed heart surgery, according to Amnesty International. But the prison authorities threatened to cut off his contact with his family if he told his relatives about his condition, the group said.
As a cofounder of one of the few independent human rights organizations in a country where dissent is being smothered more harshly than ever, Mr. Hamid did the unthinkable: He spoke publicly and repeatedly about sweeping political change there. Marrying Islamic principles with universal human rights values in his writings, he called for Saudi Arabia to transform itself into a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament that would guarantee accountability in government and an independent judiciary.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi academic at the London School of Economics who studies Saudi reformers and activists, said Mr. Hamid had played a unique role in advancing human rights in the kingdom by rooting his arguments in the language of Islamic tradition.
“Hamid’s project will remain alive even after his death,” Rasheed wrote on the website Middle East Eye. “He fused tradition with new meanings that promised respect for human rights, property and the right to defend oneself against a brutal judiciary and monarchy.”
Mr. Hamid was imprisoned seven times as a result of his work, six times between 1993 and 2008. He lost his job as a lecturer in contemporary literature at Imam Mohammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.
In 2013, four years after founding the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, he and another cofounder were sent back to prison on charges of destabilizing public order, spreading chaos, questioning officials’ integrity, and setting up an unlicensed organization.
Mr. Hamid’s final prison sentence was for 11 years.
By the end of his life, Saudi Arabia — while embracing some social changes, including new freedoms for women — had veered even further from the vision that Mr. Hamid had set out to realize.
The limited room afforded to dissent in past decades has vanished under Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. The killing in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who had urged the prince to change course, is only the most well-known episode in the government’s systematic campaign to co-opt, threaten, arrest, or otherwise silence voices of criticism.
Mr. Hamid’s ability to express human rights ideals in religious terms was an inspiration to many young Saudi activists, said Adam Coogle, a deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. But he said that those who followed Mr. Hamid are now either in prison or in exile.
“He was very courageous and bold,” Coogle added. “It’s bleak right now, but I wouldn’t say that the movement he inspired is dead. You can repress this stuff, but it’s hard to eradicate ideas.”
Abdullah al-Hamid was born in Buraydah, a city in central Saudi Arabia. (Some sources give the birth date as July 12, 1950.) He studied Arabic language and literary criticism at Riyadh University and al-Azhar University in Egypt, according to Rasheed’s 2015 book, “Muted Modernists: The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia.”
He leaves his wife and eight children, Amnesty International said.
In 1993, Mr. Hamid and five other activists and religious scholars founded the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, which called for political detainees to be released and for Saudi royals to be held accountable for abuses. The authorities cracked down, accusing the group of having ties to Islamic extremists and arresting Mr. Hamid several times from 1993-96.
By the early 2000s he had joined a movement agitating for a constitutional monarchy. He was arrested again in 2004 and sentenced to seven years in prison before King Abdullah pardoned him on the condition that he stop calling for reform. But in 2008 Mr. Hamid landed in prison again, this time for supporting a peaceful protest by the wives of prisoners in his hometown.
The next year, after being released, he and nine other activists founded the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which continued to press for a constitutional monarchy. It also helped the families of political prisoners sue the government over arbitrary detentions, according to Human Rights Watch.
In March 2013, Mr. Hamid and a cofounder, Mohammad al-Qahtani, were convicted of operating an unlicensed human rights organization, among other charges, in a trial that drew widespread international criticism. In a bold stroke, the defendants packed the courtroom with supporters, creating a rare spectacle that “publicly called attention to the fact that it was an unfair trial,” Coogle said.
Both men faced difficult living conditions and limited health care in prison, according to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, a group based outside Saudi Arabia. It said that the two men held a hunger strike in 2014 and that it had led to greater harassment.
Qahtani remains in prison. The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association was disbanded by a Saudi court.