Over the past year, the Saudi authorities have escalated their brutal crackdown on individuals using online spaces to voice their opinions, Amnesty International said today. The organization documented the cases of 15 people who were sentenced in 2022 to prison terms of between ten and 45 years simply for peaceful online activities, including the longest sentence believed to ever be imposed on a Saudi woman for peaceful online expression.
Saudi Arabia also infiltrated at least one social media company to unlawfully obtain information on dissidents and control the information that is disseminated about the Kingdom online.
Targets now include ‘ordinary’ members of the public who are peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression online. These shocking sentences send a chilling reminder to all Saudi citizens and residents that any dissent will not be tolerated.Philip Luther, Amnesty International
“Saudi Arabia has a long and infamous record of cracking down on human rights defenders, journalists and members of civil society, and their targets now include ‘ordinary’ members of the public who are peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression online. These shocking sentences send a chilling reminder to all Saudi citizens and residents that any dissent will not be tolerated,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director.
“At the same time, Saudi Arabia is attempting to infiltrate online platforms to control the information that is posted about the Kingdom and its leaders. Such repressive tactics expose the hypocrisy of Saudi Arabia organizing global events that purport to champion the free flow of information online.”
All 15 individuals were prosecuted by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) which was originally set up to try terrorism cases. The SCC has used vague provisions under the anti-cybercrime and terrorism laws which equate peaceful expression and online activity with “terrorism” to prosecute these individuals. Amnesty International has documented how every stage of the SCC judicial process is tainted by human rights violations.
These individuals were subjected to a range of human rights violations during their detention, including being held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, often for months at a time, and denied access to a lawyer throughout their pre-trial detention. Some of them were also subjected to arbitrary travel bans, in contravention of international human rights law.
The dramatic increase in the length of prison sentences meted out by the SCC follows the appointment of a new judge as President of the court in June 2022. This individual was part of the delegation sent by the Saudi authorities to Istanbul in October 2018 to allegedly clean-up evidence of the assassination and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions.
The Saudi authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.Philip Luther, Amnesty International
The crackdown on online expression is only one tool of the Saudi authorities to repress dissent. As of February 2023, Amnesty has documented the cases of 67 individuals who had been prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, including human rights defenders, peaceful political activists, journalists, poets, clerics and others. Of those, 32 were prosecuted for peacefully expressing their opinions on social media. Amnesty is aware that the real number of such prosecutions is likely much higher.
Activists and individuals imprisoned for tweets
The organization has reviewed court documents and spoken to Saudi diaspora organizations as well as the families and friends of the 15 individuals given lengthy sentences primarily for expressing themselves on social media.
The Leeds University PhD student and mother of two from Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority, had her initial six-year jail term increased on appeal to 34 years by the SCC in August 2022, followed by a 34-year travel ban. Her mobile phone was confiscated and she was ordered to shut down her Twitter account. She was held in solitary confinement for 285 days and was denied access to a lawyer throughout her pre-trial detention. She was convicted of using Twitter in support of women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul. Salma had around 2,000 followers.
On the same day Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years imprisonment, Noura al-Qahtani, Saudi woman and mother of five who is almost 50 years old, had her sentence increased from 13 to 45 years in prison. She was also given a 45-year travel ban, her mobile phone was confiscated and her Twitter account closed. Amnesty International believes this to be the longest ever sentence imposed on a Saudi woman for peaceful online expression.
Mahdia al-Marzougui is a Tunisian nurse and Saudi resident who had her sentence increased by the SCC from three and a half to 15 years in prison in September 2022, to be followed by deportation, for Tweets commenting on events in Tunisia. She had fewer than 100 Twitter followers. According to her family, Mahdia was also held in solitary confinement.
Saad Ibrahim Almadi
Saad Ibrahim Almadi is a 72-year-old Saudi-US citizen and retired engineer who was arrested on a trip to Saudi Arabia on 21 November 2021. According to his family, he was held in solitary confinement for two months. On 8 February 2022, the SCC’s Court of Appeal increased Saad’s prison sentence from 16 years and 2 months to 19 years plus a travel ban of the same duration. Saad was charged over a series of Tweets critical of the Kingdom posted while he was in the US. He had fewer than 200 Twitter followers. His family have since learned that he fell into a coma during his detention and requires urgent medical treatment.
Ten Egyptian Nubian Men
In October 2022, the SCC sentenced 10 Egyptian Nubians, a minority ethnic group indigenous to southern Egypt and northern Sudan, to between 10 and 18 years in prison on charges of posting on social media and for showing solidarity with an outlawed Islamist organization. Some of the men, one family member told Amnesty International, have serious health issues. Following their lawyer’s appeal, on 2 February 2023 the SCC upheld their prison sentences.
A supporter of the right for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed al-Rabiah was arrested in May 2018 during a crackdown on human rights defenders. The SCC increased his prison sentence from six to 17 years in December 2022, according to activists, despite the completion of his sentence in September 2022.
Infiltration of Twitter
It is unclear how the Saudi government identified the individuals mentioned above or why it chose to target them. However, these recent prosecutions coincide with revelations that Saudi Arabian authorities have infiltrated Twitter in order to collect information on dissidents.
In December 2022, a US court convicted former Twitter manager Ahmad Abouammo of spying for Saudi Arabia, by “accessing, monitoring and conveying confidential and sensitive information that could be used to identify and locate Twitter users of interest to the Saudi Royal Family.” According to the indictment, which Amnesty International reviewed, Abouammo provided the names and information of Twitter accounts “posting information critical of, or embarrassing to, the Saudi Royal Family and government of KSA.” Moreover, the indictment states that a Saudi official communicated with Abouammo requesting that an account of a Twitter User who had “posted critical information about the Saudi Royal Family and Saudi Royal Family Member” be removed and personal information of the account be shared.
“The Saudi authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. Twitter should also conduct internal investigations to identify the impact of the Saudi authorities’ infiltration attempts on its work, if it has not done so already, and make the results of its investigations public. It should also make clear what measures they have taken to prevent such breaches in the future,” said Amnesty International’s Philip Luther.