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Saudi Arabia: Repression Rages on Despite Releases

Harsh Sentencing, Travel Bans, Torture Allegations Persist

Top, left to right: Salman Al-Awda, Dr. Walid Fitaihi and his daughter, Sarah Jabri, and Omar Jabri. Bottom, left to right: Loujain al-Hathloul, Mohammed al-Otaibi, Abdelrahman al-Sadhan, and Nassima al-Sadah. Saudi authorities in recent months have imposed harsh sentences on a number of human rights activists and independent critics. (c) Private / Human Rights Watch © Private / Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities’ repression of dissidents, human rights activists, and independent critics remains at full force despite the releases of some prominent activists in early 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The sentencing of three men in March and April to lengthy prison terms on charges related to their peaceful dissent and expression underscores the authorities’ continued campaign of repression.

On April 5, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court sentenced an aid worker, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, to 20 years in prison, followed by a 20-year travel ban, on charges that relate to his peaceful expression. On April 20, the same court sentenced a human rights activist Mohammed al-Rabiah to six years in prison on a host of vague and spurious charges related to his activism. Sources close to both cases say that Saudi authorities tortured them in detention and compelled them to sign false confessions.

“Saudi Arabia’s release of several prominent activists does not signal a softening of repression when the country’s terrorism court is spitting out 20-year sentences for peaceful criticism,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi authorities may have let a few people out to lessen the international pressure, but their attitude toward dissidents remains the same.”

Al-Sadhan is a former Saudi Red Crescent employee who was detained in March 2018 after his anonymous Twitter account was allegedly breached by Saudi authorities. The authorities held him incommunicado with no contact with the outside world for nearly two years before allowing one brief phone call to his family in February 2020. The authorities finally brought charges against him in early March. The Specialized Criminal Court issued the 20-year sentence on April 5, and al-Sadhan appealed the decision in early May.

Al-Sadhan’s sister reported in the Washington Post that the authorities abused him in detention, including with electric shocks, violent beatings, and verbal abuse. She also said he was forced to sign documents used as evidence in his trial without having the chance to read them.

Saudi authorities arrested al-Rabiah, a published author, in May 2018 alongside over a dozen prominent women’s rights activists. The authorities held him arbitrarily for nearly three years before bringing charges in March. The charges included vague accusations that do not resemble actual crimes, such as “signing [a statement] seeking to shake the social fabric and weaken national and societal cohesion,” “communicating and meeting with another to harm the security and stability of the nation…,” not informing on “supporters and sympathizers” of the Muslim Brotherhood, “authoring and publishing a book containing suspicious currents,” and violating the country’s abusive cybercrime law. His sentencing followed a one-month trial in the Specialized Criminal Court. The prosecution had sought a maximum 25-year sentence.

An informed source told Human Rights Watch that prison authorities tortured al-Rabiah for months, including with electric shocks, waterboarding, and beatings. They held him in small spaces without sleep or rest for days at a time, hung him upside down, and often deprived him of meals during his first year of detention, the source said.

In March, a Saudi appeals court increased the sentence of a human rights activist, Mohammad al-Otaibi, by three years for traveling to Qatar in 2017 to escape an unfair trial. Following his forcible deportation by Qatari authorities to Saudi Arabia in 2017, authorities detained him, and a Saudi court sentenced him in January 2018 to 14 years in prison for “forming an unlicensed organization” and other vague charges relating to a short-lived human rights organization he and others had set up in 2013. 

In recent months, Saudi prison authorities have released a number of prominent activists, including those with dual citizenships from allied countries, though under conditions that effectively stifle the activists’ ability to speak out or continue their human rights work. However, since March, Saudi authorities returned to sentencing activists to lengthy prison sentences. 

In March, the Biden Administration failed to sanction the Saudi crown prince, although a US intelligence report stated he had approved the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s by Saudi state agents in October 2018.

Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist released from prison in February, has a nearly three-year suspended prison sentence on charges that allow for Saudi authorities to return her to prison at any time for any perceived “criminal activity,” effectively silencing her from speaking out or resuming her activism. A Saudi court upheld her sentence on appeal in March.

The authorities released a writer and intellectual, Salah al-Haidar, as well as a journalist and medical doctor, Bader al-Ibrahim, in February, on bail and pending trial. Both hold US citizenship. Al-Haidar’s mother, Aziza al-Yousef, is a prominent women’s rights activist detained in May 2018 and conditionally released in early 2019. Al-Haidar and al-Ibrahim had been in detention since April 2019.

Women’s rights activist Nassima al-Sadah was sentenced to five years in prison in November 2020, with half of it suspended, on charges linked to her peaceful activism. An appeals court upheld her sentence in March. Her release is tentatively expected in June, though authorities can return to prison at any moment due to the suspended portion of her sentence.

Saudi authorities also continue to target and harass dissidents and their families using a variety of methods, including by imposing and renewing arbitrary travel bans and arbitrarily detaining family members in ways that amount to collective punishment.

In addition to the travel bans on al-Sadhan, al-Rabiah, and al-Otaibi, Saudi authorities have imposed travel bans on other activists currently behind bars, as well as on al-Sadah. Al-Hathloul, though released, remains barred from travel for five years.

In March 2020, Saudi authorities detained Omar al-Jabri, 22, and Sarah al-Jabri, 21, children of a former Saudi official, Saad al-Jabri, and held them incommunicado in an apparent effort to coerce al-Jabri to return to Saudi Arabia. In November, a Saudi court secretly sentenced them in an unfair trial to nine and six and a half years in prison respectively for money laundering and unlawfully attempting to “escape” Saudi Arabia, which the family denies. An appeals court reportedly upheld the prison sentence this month, without informing the family.

Dr. Walid Fitaihi, a Saudi doctor with US citizenship, remains banned from travel since November 2017 along with seven members of his family. In December 2020, a Saudi court sentenced Dr. Fitaihi to six years in prison on vague charges mostly tied to his peaceful political views and activism. In January 2021, an appeals court nearly halved Dr. Fitaihi’s sentence but did not lift the travel bans on him and his family, nor the freezes on his financial assets. He remains in detention.

A detained Saudi cleric, Salman al-Awda, and 18 of his family members have been barred from traveling since 2017. The authorities arrested al-Awda in 2017 on charges mainly related to his alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and public support for imprisoned dissidents. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against him.

“Saudi Arabia cannot rehabilitate its international image so long as it harasses, arrests, and tortures its critics into submission or makes them flee abroad,” Page said.

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