Khaled Al-Johani: The Bravest Man in Saudi Arabia

Khaled Al-Johani isn’t one of the many Arab Spring protesters in the middle east. He has not had the time or energy to get involved in politics. He’s a religion teacher in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and father of a five-year-boy with autism. Like many parents of children with that challenging disease, he struggles with day to day life. Like many parents with autistic and other disabled children, he and his wife get little help from their government.

One day a few weeks ago, it all got to be too much. When the “Day of Rage” arrived that few other people in Saudi Arabia dared to attend, he showed up and spoke to waiting BBC reporters. What he said would not have been particularly exceptionable or even noticeable in much of the world; he called for dignity, freedom, and a better system to support families in his position. For doing this, he was arrested and jailed. His family has not been allowed to contact him or told where he is. Political prisoners in Saudi Arabia are usually held for months, and often tortured, before being released. They are not released until they recant whatever they said that angered the government.

The rest of the world didn’t notice, until a week ago somebody released a video clip of his statement on Youtube and it went viral. The clip is in Arabic; I couldn’t understand what he said. Here’s a Youtube video of an interview with Mr. Al-Johani’s brother Ali, however, with English subtitles. I would embed it here, but this Youtube video lacked the usual embed code and I’m not familiar enough with Youtube to figure it out from scratch.

I have several friends with autistic children. One is a biotechnologist with several advanced degrees who lives in Silicon Valley and works from home so that he can care for his three children. His wife is a high-functioning autistic herself and this arrangement works best. Their oldest son is autistic. Because they knew what to look for and had access to early treatment, the boy is not just functional but a delight to be around. Another is a former preacher with Asperger’s syndrome, and his wife, whose daughter has autism. They also had her diagnosed early and were able to begin treatment when she wasn’t quite three. She is also a happy, functional child, although she struggles with certain things. Yet another is a science fiction and fantasy writer I’ve “known” for years in an online community that we both participate in. Her son is a young adult, somewhat more disabled but living independently.

*This* man’s boy may not have that chance, because the medical interventions and therapies available to my friends are not available to his son. Then, when this loving and overburdened father finally can’t take it any more and speaks out, the government that left him to struggle and failed to help — jailed him.

I’m a bit too angry to say more now. :/

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