In Salman’s Saudi, even a hint of dissent can land you in prison

Saudi Arabia is meting out harsher punishments to citizens who criticise their government, and the defendants on trial have become increasingly less prominent
Last Updated 22 February 2023, 02:42 IST
An economics professor, al-Qahtani co-founded an independent human rights organisation in 2009. In 2013, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. NYT (via al-Qahtani family)
An economics professor, al-Qahtani co-founded an independent human rights organisation in 2009. In 2013, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. NYT (via al-Qahtani family)
dh illustration: deepak harichandan
dh illustration: deepak harichandan

By Vivian Nereim

One day in November 2015, Saad Almadi typed out a 14-word post on Twitter about Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince.

“Mohammed bin Salman has taken over the economy, defence and everything under the king,” he wrote, replying to a professor who is a fierce critic of the kingdom’s monarchy.

A Saudi American dual citizen living in Florida, Almadi had little reason to believe his post would attract attention. He was a retired project manager, not an activist, and his words were largely factual — Mohammed bin Salman had taken control of many of the levers of power since his father became king that year. By 2017, he would push aside a cousin to become heir to the throne.

Yet the tweet resurfaced as evidence seven years later when Almadi, 72, was arrested during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Along with other Twitter posts he wrote that were critical of the Saudi government — and an “insulting picture” of Crown Prince Mohammed saved on his phone — the tweet was cited as proof that he had “adopted a terrorist agenda by defaming symbols of the state” and “supported terrorist ideology,” according to court documents.

His prosecutor requested a severe punishment, “to rebuke him and deter others.” In October, Almadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison, lengthened Feb 8 to 19 years after he appealed.

“My father is nowhere near being a dissident,” said his son, Ibrahim Almadi, describing him as an open-minded man who spent his retirement traveling, hiking and wine tasting. Now he is being held in Al-Ha’ir prison, a facility in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, that houses members of al-Qaida alongside political activists.

Saudi Arabia has always been an authoritarian monarchy with limited freedom of speech. But 10 years ago, Saad Almadi’s Twitter account, which has fewer than 2,000 followers, might have prompted a warning or an interrogation. Under Crown Prince Mohammed, now prime minister, harsher punishments are being meted out to citizens who criticise their government, and the defendants on trial have become increasingly less prominent.

“The scope of oppression really is unprecedented,” said Hala Aldosari, a women’s rights activist who left Saudi Arabia in 2014 for a postdoctoral fellowship in the US and said she never felt safe enough to return. Since then, Crown Prince Mohammed has rendered the conservative Islamic kingdom nearly unrecognizable, setting in motion seismic changes — some of which activists like Aldosari spent years campaigning for.

He ended a slew of religious and social restrictions that many Saudis found suffocating. Women, barred from driving until 2018, now work as Amazon delivery drivers, CEOs and ambassadors. Music, once effectively prohibited in public, thumps inside dimly lit restaurants where young couples flirt. The gender segregation that shaped public life for decades has dissolved.At the same time, the modest space for political discourse has shrivelled.

“It’s a bittersweet moment in history, where you see the fruits of your mobilization somehow yielded, but for the wrong reason,” Aldosari said. “The people are being shut down or silenced in return for giving them certain rights.”

Since 2017, Saudi authorities have arrested hundreds of public figures across the political spectrum, including Snapchat influencers, religious clerics, billionaires and several of the crown prince’s own cousins. The killing in 2018 of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, prompting international outrage, was the most dramatic example of a broader crackdown that has continued to deepen since his death.

Authorities have paid special attention to Twitter, which is widely used in the kingdom. Noura al-Qahtani, who ran an anonymous Twitter account, was among several people put on trial last year in relation to social media activity. On her account, where she had about 600 followers, she called for anti-government protests, criticized some social liberalisation measures and wrote that Crown Prince Mohammed was “not good enough to be a prince.”

After a court found her guilty of “challenging the faith and justice of the king and the crown prince” and “supporting the ideology of people who strive to disturb public order,” among other charges, she was sentenced to 13 years in prison. On appeal, she pleaded for mercy, saying that she was nearly 50 and had five children to take care of, according to a copy of her verdict. Instead, the panel of judges lengthened her sentence to 45 years in prison.

Around the same time, Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi doctoral student at Leeds University in Britain, was sentenced to 34 years in prison, largely in relation to following Saudi dissidents on Twitter and sharing their posts, according to a copy of her verdict.

The court sentenced both women under counterterrorism and cybercrime laws. Both were given an additional penalty at the discretion of the judges.

A Saudi official said in a statement to The New York Times that the government was studying and putting new measures in place to enhance human rights, including changes to the judicial system. However, Saudi Arabia “maintains a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to terrorism,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with government protocol.

The official did not respond to questions about specific prisoners, including Almadi, al-Qahtani and al-Shehab, saying only that “cases of individuals that violate national laws are clearly differentiated from peaceful expressions of opinion.”

Yet a review of the detainees’ Twitter accounts — which were the basis for their indictments — did not reveal posts professing support for militant groups or endorsing violent action, aside from a vague tweet by al-Qahtani that referred to “removing this tyrant from the face of the earth,” without mentioning a name. Instead, their prosecutors cited posts critical of the government or royal family members and labeled them terrorism-related views that threatened state security, according to court documents.

Until recently, prison sentences longer than 20 years were rare in the kingdom, and Saudis with US citizenship or ties to local elites, like Almadi, would have been able to draw on connections to protect themselves.

“One of the merits of Mohammed bin Salman is that he’s created equality of injustice for all,” said Taha al-Hajji, a Saudi lawyer who lives in exile in Germany.

(Published 21 February 2023, 18:00 IST)

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