Saudi Arabia: Wave of arrests targets last vestiges of freedom of expression

In the last week Saudi Arabian authorities have intensified their crackdown on freedom of expression, detaining more than 20 prominent religious figures, writers, journalists, academics and activists, said Amnesty International.
“In recent years we cannot recall a week in which so many prominent Saudi Arabian figures have been targeted in such a short space of time,” said Samah Hadid, Director of Campaigns for Amnesty International in the Middle East.
“It is clear that the new leadership under Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman is sending a chilling message: freedom of expression will not be tolerated, we are coming after you.”
Those arrested include prominent Islamic clerics such as Sheikh Salman al-Awda, an influential religious figure who has over 14 million followers on social media, detained on 9 September. He is known for his calls for reforms and as an advocate for greater respect of human rights within the Islamic Shari’a.
Abdullah al-Maliki, an academic and writer known for his support for reforms and human rights, was reportedly detained on 12 September. Essam al-Zamel, an entrepreneur known for his writing about the need of economic reform, was also arrested the same day.
To date, there is no official information about the whereabouts of any of those swept in this crackdown. The number of people detained remains unknown, with reports of further arrests emerging on social media.
“We are deeply worried about the wellbeing of those being detained. The Saudi Arabian government must immediately reveal their whereabouts and ensure they are protected from torture and other ill-treatment and allow them access to lawyers as well as contact with their families,” said Samah Hadid.
“The authorities must immediately disclose the charges being brought against those detained, and if they are detained for their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression then they should be released immediately”.
While to date, the exact reasons for these arrests remain unclear, the State Security, an agency reporting to the King which was recently formed to consolidate counter-terrorism and domestic intelligence, issued a statement on 11 September saying that it was monitoring “the intelligence activities of a group of people for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the kingdom and its interests, methodology, capabilities and social peace in order to stir up sedition and prejudice national unity.”
“Some of those being detained are prominent figures known for their peaceful activism. If they end up being accused of ‘inciting discord’ and ‘infringing national unity’, which are considered terrorist crimes in Saudi Arabia, the prospects for freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia look very grim indeed”, said Samah Hadid.
Since Prince Mohamad Bin Salman became crown prince on 21 June, the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated markedly.
Authorities continued to put human rights defenders on trial on charges related to their peaceful activism before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh, a notorious tribunal set up to deal with security and terrorism-related cases under the 2014 counter-terror law. A worrying increase in executions has also been documented as well as the upholding of death sentences of political dissidents.
“The majority of Saudi Arabian human rights defenders are now either in prison serving their sentence or facing grossly unfair trials, the remaining few fear that their names are on the government’s ‘hunting list’ and that they will soon be detained,” said Samah Hadid
Since 2013, the Saudi Arabian authorities have targeted civil society activists and human rights defenders. The country’s most prominent independent activists and other critics were silenced, prosecuted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms or forced to flee the country.
Human rights defenders have been prosecuted on vague and overly broad charges under the 2014 counter-terror law in connection with their peaceful activities, and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison after grossly unfair trials in front of the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), a notorious tribunal set up to deal with security and terrorism-related offences.
In July 2017, Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, the last founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) to be sentenced, was informed by the SCC that his sentence of eight years in prison, followed by an eight-year travel ban and a ban from writing on social media, had been upheld. He is now at risk of being imprisoned at any time.
On 21 August, human rights defenders Issa al-Nukheifi and Essam Koshak were brought to trial at the SCC. They were charged with a number of offences relating to their human rights activism and social media posts.
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