Under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, important social reforms in the kingdom have been accompanied by deepening repression and abusive practices meant to silence dissidents and critics, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on November 04.
In a 62-page report titled, “‘The High Cost of Change’: Repression Under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reforms,” documents ongoing arbitrary and abusive practices by Saudi authorities targeting dissidents and activists since mid-2017 and total lack of accountability for those responsible for abuses.
Human Rights Watch found that despite landmark reforms for Saudi women and youth, ongoing abuses demonstrate that the rule of law in Saudi Arabia remains weak and can be undermined at will by the country’s political leadership.
“Mohammed bin Salman has created an entertainment sector and allowed women to travel and drive, but Saudi authorities have also locked away many of the country’s leading reformist thinkers and activists on his watch, some of whom called for these very changes,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The report is based on interviews with Saudi activists and dissidents since 2017, government statements, and court documents, as well as exhaustive reviews of Saudi local media outlets and social media.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince, making him next in line to the Saudi throne and the country’s day-to-day ruler. His elevation coincided with positive changes, fostering a positive image for the crown prince on the international political scene.
Behind the glamour and pomp and the advancements for Saudi women and youth, however, lay a darker reality, as the Saudi authorities moved to sideline anyone who could stand in the way of Mohammed bin Salman’s political ascension.
In the summer of 2017, around the time of his promotion to crown prince, authorities quietly reorganized the country’s prosecution service and security apparatus, the primary tools of Saudi repression, and placed them directly under the royal court’s oversight.
The authorities then began a series of arrest campaigns. They targeted prominent clerics, public intellectuals, academics, and human rights activists in September 2017, leading business people and royal family members accused of corruption in November 2017, and the country’s most prominent women’s rights advocates beginning in May 2018. The arrest waves were often accompanied by defamation and slander of those arrested in the country’s pro-government media.
Abusive practices also have included long-term arbitrary detention – two years in some cases – without charge, trial, or any clear legal process.
The authorities also targeted family members of prominent Saudi dissidents and activists, including imposing arbitrary travel bans.
Other abusive practices have included extorting financial assets in exchange for releasing detainees, outside of any legal process, and seeking the death penalty for acts that do not resemble recognizable crimes.
Saudi prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty against a reformist religious thinker, Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, on vague charges relating to the expression of his peaceful religious ideas, and against a well-known cleric, Salman al-Awda, on charges stemming solely from his peaceful political statements, associations, and positions. Both were detained during the September 2017 crackdown.
The repressive side of the crown prince’s domestic record, however, was not given the international scrutiny it deserved until October 2018, when the violent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate shocked global opinion and led to a broader examination of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s not real reform in Saudi Arabia if it takes place in a dystopia where rights activists are imprisoned and freedom of expression exists just for those who publicly malign them,” Page said. (Source: HRW)