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HRW urges Saudi Arabia to release 12 football fans imprisoned for ‘Shia chant’ 

March 31, 2024 at 12:45 pm

Logo of US-based rights group Human Rights Watch on the door in Berlin on 21 January 2014 [JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images]

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Saudi Arabia to overturn prison sentences handed down to 12 football fans, after they were peacefully chanting “a Shia religious song” during a match in January.

On Thursday, HRW reported that a Saudi court had sentenced the football fans from six months to a year in prison on 27 March. “Saudi authorities should immediately quash the verdict, which is solely based on the peaceful expression of exuberant football fans,” HRW said.

The fans were summoned and arrested by police after a video of them chanting the song was posted and spread on social media. The Saudi Criminal Court in Dammam handed down a sentence of one year in prison along with a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals (about US$2,666) to two fans, while others received a one-year prison term with six months suspended and fines of 5,000 Saudi Riyals (around $1,333).

On 24 January, during a football match between Al Safa FC and Al Bukiryah FC in the country’s Eastern Province, where Saudi Arabia’s long-discriminated Shia minority are concentrated, a group of Al Safa fans were filmed peacefully singing a Shia religious song celebrating the birth of Imam Ali, who is considered by Shia Muslims to be the first Imam.

It’s worth noting that the timing of their sentences was just days before the anniversary of the fatal attack on Imam Ali on 19 Ramadan and his subsequent martyrdom on 21 Ramadan in the Hijri calendar.

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Qatif police summoned and released more than 150 fans for questioning in the days after the match, according to HRW, citing a source familiar with the case.

The news of their arrest and imprisonment has sparked fresh concerns over the Kingdom’s human rights record, especially as it stands as the sole bidder to host the 2034 World Cup.

Joey Shea, a Saudi Arabia researcher at HRW, said: “Jailing football fans for chants at a match is just one more reason that FIFA’s rigging of the 2034 World Cup bidding process to allow Saudi Arabia to be the sole bidder is not just embarrassing, but dangerous.”

“How can football fans feel safe in Saudi Arabia if they can be so easily sentenced to prison for nothing more than chants the government doesn’t like?”

“Any sports institution, musician, or global entertainer needs to ask themselves a serious question before they perform in Saudi Arabia,” Shea said. “They should ask themselves whether their own fans might be arrested if they chant something the government doesn’t like.”

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