A prominent pro-reform law professor in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to death for alleged crimes including owning a Twitter account and using WhatsApp to spread messages deemed “hostile” to the kingdom, according to court documents released to the Guardian present.
The arrest of Awad Al-Qarni, 65, in September 2017 was the start of a crackdown on dissent from then-new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Details of the charges against al-Qarni have now been given to the Guardian by his son Nasser, who fled the kingdom last year and lives in the UK, where he has said he is seeking asylum.
Al-Qarni has been portrayed as a dangerous preacher in the Saudi-controlled media, but dissidents said Al-Qarni is an important and well-respected intellectual with a strong following on social media, including 2 million Twitter followers.
Human rights defenders and exiled Saudi dissidents have warned that the kingdom’s authorities are involved in a new and crackdown on those perceived to be critics of the Saudi government. Last year, Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds PhD student and mother of two, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for having a Twitter account and following and retweeting dissidents and activists. Another woman, Noura al-Qahtani, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for using Twitter.
However, the indictment documents shared by Nasser Al-Qarni show that the use of social media and other means of communication has been criminalized within the kingdom since the beginning of Prince Mohammed’s reign.
The Saudi government and state-controlled investors have recently increased their financial stakes in US social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and entertainment companies like Disney. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi investor, is the second largest investor in Twitter after Elon Musk acquired the social media platform. The investor himself was held for 83 days in 2017 during a so-called anti-corruption purge. Prince Alwaleed has admitted he was released after reaching an “understanding” with the Kingdom which was “confidential and secret between me and the Government”.
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, has separately increased its stakes in Facebook and Meta, the company that owns Facebook and WhatsApp.
A translation of the charges against Al-Qarni, for which he faces the death penalty, includes the law professor’s “admission” that he used a social media account under his own name (@awadalqarni) and used it “at every opportunity…”. express your opinion”. The documents also say he “admitted” to participating in a WhatsApp chat and was accused of participating in videos praising the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Qarni’s apparent use of Telegram and the creation of a Telegram account have also been included in the allegations.
Jeed Basyouni, the head of advocacy for the Middle East and North Africa at human rights group Reprieve, said Al-Qarni’s case fits into a trend the group has observed of scholars and academics facing the death penalty for tweeting and speaking out .
When asked about the kingdom’s investment on Facebook and Twitter, Basouni said: “If it weren’t so scary, it would be a farce. It is consistent with how they operate under this Crown Prince.”
The kingdom has tried to project an international image for investing in technology, modern infrastructure, sports and entertainment, Basouni said.
“But at the same time that’s totally inconsistent with all the cases that we’re seeing where we’re talking about the prosecutor – led by Mohammed bin Salman – demanding that people be killed because of their opinions, because of tweets, e.g. conversations.” They are not dangerous, they do not call for the overthrow of the regime,” she said.
In the US, companies with major Saudi investments or other business in Saudi Arabia have not responded to public questions about Saudis’ handling of dissent or the imprisonment of its users. Nor has the kingdom bowed to calls from the Biden administration to improve its human rights record.
Ahmed Almutairi (aka Ahmed Aljbreen), a Saudi accused of failing to register as a foreign agent when he allegedly participated in a 2014-15 conspiracy to infiltrate Twitter on behalf of the Saudi government and confidential user data stealing it is considered a fugitive by the FBI after evading arrest in the US. The violation is believed to have led to the outing of at least one Twitter user, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who allegedly used a satirical account to mock the government. He was arrested, disappeared and was later sentenced to decades in prison.
Far from keeping a low profile, Almutairi’s social media accounts show he leads an active life in Riyadh, including posting an invitation and VIP pass on his Snapchat this week to a Netflix-sponsored party at Riyadh’s International Park, hosted by the Saudi General Entertainment Authority.
Netflix spokesman Richard Siklos did not respond to requests for comment about the company, which was sponsoring an event in Riyadh that had an FBI wanted man on its invite list. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings acknowledged in 2020 that he had agreed to censor an episode of comedy show Patriot Act, starring Hasan Minhaj, which criticized Saudi Arabia for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in Exchange for allowing Saudi to display explicit content Kingdom.
“It is beyond disgusting that a prominent law professor faces the death penalty for using Twitter, while an FBI fugitive wanted for infiltrating Twitter headquarters receives a Netflix-sponsored VIP invitation to attend an event hosted by the… Saudi government,” said Khalid Aljabri, who lives in exile in New York and whose father was a former Saudi intelligence officer and whose brother and sister are being held in the kingdom.
Saudi dissidents living in the US also became aware this week that Ibrahim Alhussayen – a Saudi who had lived in the US and pleaded guilty to lying to authorities after prosecutors claimed he had people living in the US and Canada Harassed and threatened – Saudi was deported back to the US after serving a short prison sentence.
One of Alhussayen’s victims revealed this week that an account owned by the harasser tried to contact her after he was released from prison. The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment.
The Saudi government did not respond to requests for comment.