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This June 23, 2018 photo, shows a general view of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  © 2018 Nariman El-Mofty/AP Photo

(Beirut) – Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against a Saudi religious reformist thinker on a host of vague charges relating to his peaceful religious ideas, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi authorities arrested Hassan Farhan al-Maliki in September 2017 and have detained him since, finally bringing charges in October 2018.

Prosecuting al-Maliki for peacefully expressing religious ideas appears to contradict Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s statement in October 2017that he wanted to “revert” the country to “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” The Public Prosecution reports directly to the Saudi royal court.

“Mohammed bin Salman has consistently pledged to support a more ‘moderate’ version of Islam while his country maintains a prosecution service that seeks the death penalty against religious reformers for expressing their peaceful ideas,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia’s real road to reform lies in allowing religious thinkers like al-Maliki to express themselves without fear of arrest and possible execution.”

A Saudi activist told Human Rights Watch that the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court, has held at least three trial sessions on al-Maliki’s case, but the next hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Human Rights Watch reviewed al-Maliki’s charge sheet, which consists of 14 charges, nearly all with no resemblance to recognized crimes. The first two charges relate to his peaceful expression of his religious opinions about the veracity of certain sayings of the prophet and his criticism of several seventh century Islamic figures. Other charges include “insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist,” and accusing Gulf countries of supporting ISIS.

Prosecutors also charged al-Maliki with praising Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and “having sympathy” for the Houthi group in Yemen, and expressing his religious views in television interviews, attending discussion groups in Saudi Arabia, writing books and studies and publishing them outside of Saudi Arabia, possession of banned books, defaming a Kuwaiti man by accusing him on Twitter of supporting ISIS, and violating the country’s notorious cybercrime law.

The charge sheet also accuses al-Maliki of crossing illegally from Saudi Arabia into northern Yemen for research about his family origins and history in 2001, after Saudi authorities had banned al-Maliki from travel abroad. Saudi Arabia does not have a comprehensive written penal code and only a limited number of written criminal regulations. Charges not based on a written text, which include all but one of al-Maliki’s, do not have a statute of limitation.

Evidence cited by prosecutors in the charge sheet consisted entirely of al-Maliki’s alleged confession, his Tweets, and material confiscated from his home and electronic devices. It says that he allegedly confessed to “calling for freedom of belief, and that it is the right of any person to adopt beliefs that he sees as correct, and it is not permitted to restrict these [beliefs] or impose certain beliefs,” as well as his denial that the crime of apostacy should be punishable by death, “seeing that there is no truth to it legally.” He also allegedly confessed to saying that “those [clerics] who ban singing or music in all its forms are extremists, as there is no evidence for banning it and that the prophet [peace be upon him] listened to it.”

“Prosecutors are seeking to put a man to death in part for criticizing any cleric who bans music, while Saudi leaders are paying millions to public relations companies to show how ‘progressive’ they are for allowing public concerts by major Western artists in the country,” Page said.

Prosecutors also cited excerpts of an alleged confession by al-Maliki’s son, Abbas, whom the charge sheet indicates is also detained, though Saudi activists do not know his status.

The charges do not qualify as crimes for which capital punishment can be justified under international human rights law. International standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia, require countries that retain the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes,” and in exceptional circumstances. In 2012, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions stated that where used, the death penalty should be limited to cases in which a person is intentionally killed.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.

Since 2017, Saudi authorities have undertaken mass detentions, including of human rights activists, independent clerics, and academics. Authorities held many for months without charge and referred some to trial on charges solely tied to their peaceful statements or beliefs. Saudi prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty against a prominent cleric, Salman al-Awda, on a host of vague charges related to his political statements, associations, and positions.

Other prominent detainees arrested in September 2017 include Essam al-Zamil, an economist; Mustafa al-Hasan, an academic; Abdullah Al-Malki, a writer; and dozens of other clerics including Awad al-Qarni, Ibrahim al-Nasser, and Ibrahim al-Fares. Authorities imprisoned Abdulaziz al-Shubaily and Issa al-Hamid, human rights activists, around the same time. Both had lost appeals of convictions for their human rights work following unfair trials.

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