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(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have arrested dozens of people, including prominent clerics, in what appears to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. The campaign comes three months after Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017.

The reported arrests of Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni, and more than a dozen others since September 10 are the latest in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing repression campaign against dissidents including peaceful activists, journalists, and writers. A prominent writer, Jamal Khashoggi, announced that his publication, al-Hayat, had banned him from writing regular opinion columns.
Saudi authorities arrested Salman al-Awda and over a dozen others in what appears to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent.  © 2009 Marwan Almuraisy (Wikimedia Commons)

“These apparently politically motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammad bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country’s record on free speech and the rule of law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudis’ alleged efforts to tackle extremism are all for show if all the government does is jail people for their political views.”

A September 12 Saudi Press Agency announcement appeared to confirm the arrests, stating that the Presidency of State Security, the country’s new counterterrorism agency, had worked “to monitor 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.” It said the group included Saudis and foreigners.

Al-Awda and al-Qarni were prominent members of the “Sahwa Movement” in the early 1990s, which criticized Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow the US military into the country to protect it from a potential Iraqi invasion. The authorities imprisoned al-Awda from 1994-1999. Since 2011 al-Awda has advocated greater democracy and social tolerance. Al-Qarni announced in March that authorities had banned him from writing following a conviction for harming public order.

Reuters reported that the clerics failed to sufficiently back Saudi policies, including the isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. The Wall Street Journal reported that the arrests may be related to Saudi authorities’ preparation for an abdication by King Salman in favor of Mohammad bin Salman, the king’s son.

While Saudi authorities have not disclosed the specific reasons for the detentions, they fit a pattern of human rights violations against peaceful advocates and dissidents, including harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, travel bans, detention, and prosecution.

Khashoggi has faced writing bans in the past. The most recent came in November 2016, after the Saudi Press Agency stated that Khashoggi does not represent the government of Saudi Arabia after he criticized Donald Trump at a presentation in Washington, DC, on November 10.

Saudi courts have convicted at least 25 prominent activists and dissidents since 2011. Many faced sentences as long as 10 or 15 years and most faced broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent. They include “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “sowing discord,” “inciting public opinion,” “setting up an unlicensed organization,” and vague provisions from the 2007 cybercrime law.

Since 2014, Saudi authorities have tried nearly all peaceful dissidents in the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal.

Authorities have arrested and prosecuted nearly all activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of Saudi Arabia’s first civic organizations, which called for broad political reform in interpretations of Islamic law. A Saudi court formally dissolved and banned the group in March 2013. The members faced similar vague charges, including disparaging and insulting judicial authorities, inciting public opinion, insulting religious leaders, participating in setting up an unlicensed organization, and violating the cybercrime law.

Saudi activists and dissidents currently serving long prison terms based solely on their peaceful activism include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Raif Badawi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, Alaa Brinji, and Nadhir al-Majed. Activists Issa al-Nukheifi and Essam Koshak are currently on trial. In late July, a Saudi appeals court upheld an eight-year prison sentence against Abdulaziz al-Shubaily. Mohammed al-Oteibi and Abdullah Attawi are currently on trial for forming a human rights organization in 2013.

“Outlandish sentences against peaceful activists and dissidents demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s complete intolerance toward citizens who speak out for human rights and reform,” Whitson said.

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