Saudi authorities continue to repress dissidents, human rights activists, and independent critics at full force despite the releases of some prominent activists in early 2021, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday.
The international rights group said the sentencing of three men in March and April to lengthy prison terms on charges related to their peaceful dissent and expression, underscores the kingdom’s 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.
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.
An informed source told Human Rights Watch that prison authorities tortured al-Rabiah for months, including with electric shocks, waterboarding, and beatings.
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 stifles 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.
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.
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.
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. Al-Hathloul, though released, remains barred from travel for five years.
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. (Source: HRW)