Saudi Arabia punishes critical tweets with up to the death penalty or 45 years in prison | International

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Little is known about high school student Manar Al Gafiri, the 18-year-old who, according to the exiled Saudi human rights group ALQST, was sentenced last August to 18 years in prison and banned from leaving the country for the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court, in charge of trying terrorism crimes. Al Gafiri was still a minor when she was arrested for tweeting in support of political prisoners in Saudi prisons and “human rights defenders, especially women who demand equal rights,” Carlos de las Heras, a specialist, confirms by telephone. in Saudi Arabia from Amnesty International. This and other cases, the expert says, exemplify “a worrying increase in the last year of repression against those who use the Internet to express their opposition.”

That of the teenager is not the most serious sentence handed down in the kingdom of Saud for dissenting from the regime on social networks. Since 2017, shortly after the current Saudi de facto leader, Mohamed Bin Salmán, was named crown prince, these alleged crimes have been considered “cybercrimes” and are assimilated to acts of terrorism. The same court that sentenced Al Gafiri sentenced a retired professor, Muhammad al Ghamdi, 54, to death on July 10 for his activity on X (formerly Twitter) and YouTube. On his two accounts on X, Al Ghamdi had 10 followers. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Prosecutor's Office accused him of criticizing the royal family.

Just a year earlier, in August 2022, the same court raised the prison sentence against doctoral student Salma Al Shehab, 35, on appeal from 6 to 34 years, supposedly for a tweet that contained a subtle criticism of a new Saudi public transport contract. The sentence was later reduced to 27 years. The same day, another court sentenced another woman, Nourah Al Qahtani, to 45 years in prison for “using the internet to break the social fabric.” In 2022, Amnesty documented 15 cases of people sentenced to between 10 and 45 years in prison solely for peaceful online activities.

The sentence against the professor who, if nothing is done to remedy it, will be executed by the usual method in Saudi Arabia - beheaded with a saber - was confirmed by Bin Salmán himself on September 20. In an interview with the conservative American network Fox, the Saudi heir declared: “[Esta condena] It embarrasses us. But I can't tell a judge [que ignore] the law. “That would go against the rule of law.”

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy in which the king controls the legislative, executive and judicial powers. There is no separation of powers or the rule of law to which the same prince alluded, who already accumulates “more power than any other member of the Saud family since the founding of the kingdom,” in the words of journalists Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, in his work Blood and Oil (Peninsula, 2023). Shortly after being named heir, Bin Salmán - who actually exercises the power that formally corresponds to his father, King Salmán, 87 years old -, the new anti-terrorist law was sanctioned by which the professor has been sentenced to death. .

This new rule withdrew powers from the Ministry of the Interior and transferred them to the Prosecutor's Office and the presidency of State Security, two organizations that had previously been placed under the direct authority of the monarch and, therefore, the crown prince. Since September 2022, Bin Salmán has also been the country's prime minister.

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These two organizations that respond to the almighty prince have been characterized by intensifying repression. Before Bin Salmán was elevated to heir to the throne, death sentences or decades in prison had never been handed down for publications on social networks, says the HRW organization.

Saudi Arabia is “the worst state in terms of surveillance in the world,” Ali Al Ahmed, founder of the Institute for Gulf Affairs think tank, emphasizes from Washington via WhatsApp. Al Ahmed believes that the sentences against internet users are only one visible face of a widespread repression against critics of the regime. “Most of the time we hear about cases like this because outsiders can see that someone stops tweeting or posting,” he says.

Al Ahmed sued X, then Twitter, in 2020, alleging that two of its employees, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Al Zabarah, hacked his account between 2013 and 2016 and leaked data from his sources to Saudi intelligence. In a different case in the United States, Abouammo was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for spying for the Saudi government, while Al Zabarah fled to Saudi Arabia. The authors of Blood and Oil They claim that the two men were hired by Bader al Asaker, Bin Salmán's closest collaborator, to identify and spy on Saudi dissidents on Twitter.

Wash the image

Criticism on social networks especially worries a crown prince who is very aware of the global impact of these platforms and who, in recent years, has promoted a vast operation to wash the image of Saudi Arabia in the service of achieving the objectives set out in the Vision 2030 project, your roadmap for the future of your country. The ultimate goal of this project is to end the almost absolute dependence of the Saudi economy on income from oil exports and attract investments, companies and tourists to the Arab State, an objective irreconcilable with its reputation as a reactionary, fundamentalist and repressive dictatorship. human rights.

“Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 tries to offer the world a reformist and open face,” says Amnesty's Saudi Arabia specialist. With this idea, Bin Salmán has promoted the organization of cultural events, the bid to organize major world sports championships or the million-dollar signings of soccer stars. With this and with a façade liberalization, without democracy or political openness, “they sell a wonderful image that does not correspond to the life of the Saudis,” emphasizes De las Heras. The repression on social networks “has only added to what already existed in the streets,” he says.

This expert deplores the ephemerality of the timid international ostracism against the Saudi regime due to the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. This Monday marks five years of that crime, which the CIA attributes to a direct order from Bin Salmán, who now “It is once again well received in Europe and the United States.” “Economic interests prevail,” says De las Heras. Meanwhile, Al Ahmed recalls how “most of the surveillance systems, torture, prisons, technologies and tracking techniques [de disidentes que utiliza el régimen saudí]as well as the training of its police is carried out in the United States, the United Kingdom and France.” He illustrates this with a memory: “When I was arrested for the first time in Saudi Arabia at the age of 14, the handcuffs had the inscription Made in California, USA”.

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