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Repression in Saudi Arabia in full force despite release of prisoners, says HRW

May 24, 2021 at 1:24 pm

An activist of the human rights NGO Amnesty International takes part in an action in front of the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Brussels on January 8, 2021 [KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images]

Saudi Arabia’s repression of dissidents, human rights activists, and independent critics remains in full force despite the release of some prominent activists earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said yesterday. The sentencing of three men in March and April to lengthy prison terms on charges related to their peaceful dissent underscores the authorities’ continued repressive campaign, argued the US-based rights group.

Amongst those to be sentenced over the past few months was Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, a former Saudi Red Crescent employee. The aid worker was sentenced to 20 years in prison, followed by a 20-year travel ban, on charges related to his peaceful expression of dissent in the Kingdom. Saudi courts also sentenced human rights activist Mohammed Al-Rabiah to six years in prison on a host of vague and spurious charges related to his activism.

“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 HRW. “The Saudi authorities may have let a few people out to lessen the international pressure, but their attitude towards dissidents remains the same.”

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

READ: Saudi activist arrested after criticising ‘normalisation with Israel’

HRW expressed concern over the spurious allegations being used to imprison peaceful activists. 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 sympathisers” of the Muslim Brotherhood; “authoring and publishing a book containing suspicious currents”; and violating the country’s abusive cybercrime law.

Sources told HRW that prison authorities in Saudi Arabia use electric shocks, waterboarding, and beatings to torture prisoners. They are said to have held one prisoner 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 change of the US administration in January coincided with the release of a number of high-profile Saudi activists, including, Loujain al-Hathloul. The release of the women’s rights campaigner was seen as an indication that the Kingdom was about to turn a corner. However, such illusions have been dismissed by HRW. “Saudi Arabia cannot rehabilitate its international image so long as it harasses, arrests, and tortures its critics into submission or makes them flee abroad,” insisted Page.