Saudi Arabia is escalating the use of an anti-terrorism law to suppress freedom of opinion and expression

The year 2022 witnessed more repressive arrest campaigns in Saudi Arabia that targeted citizens and activists on charges related to freedom of opinion and expression. Attacks on freedom of expression and opinion increased after the visit of US President Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, who promised during his election campaign to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights violations. More than a dozen human rights organizations called on President Biden to set strict preconditions before his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including the immediate release of political prisoners, lifting arbitrary travel bans on human rights defenders, and ending the illegal surveillance practice; ultimately the President decided to ignore his campaign promise and meet the crown prince without securing any of the human rights preconditions.

Following President Biden’s visit, Saudi authorities escalated their widespread use of anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws as a weapon to target, intimidate, and enact revenge on human rights defenders and dissenting voices, as reported by Freedom House in its annual index of freedoms. Saudi Arabia sits among the lowest levels in the Freedoms Index for the year 2022 and maintained the same ratio recorded in 2021, which is (7/100), and was divided into political rights (1/40) and civil liberties (6/60).

Male and female activists, some of them from other nationalities, were arrested between 2021 and 2022 and sentenced to prison, fines, and travel bans simply for expressing their opinions in tweets, published commentary, or retweets. The rapid response by Saudi authorities came through arrest, arbitrary detention, and disappearance. Saudi authorites also sentenced these activists in absence of minimum standards for fair trials, used charges such as disturbing public order, undermining the security and stability of society, and others that allowed the kingdom to suppress opinion and speech.

The following cases are of activists who were arrested or tried in 2022 under Saudi rights abuses. We demand their unconditional release.

Salma Chehab

On January 2021, Salma Chehab, a Saudi mother of two and a PhD student of Shiite minority who was studying at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, was arrested in the General Directorate Investigation after being summoned to interrogation, a few days before going back to the United Kingdom to continue her studies. She was held in prolonged solitary confinement for 285 days before being brought to trial.

After a series of trials that lacked all standards of legitimate justice, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Salma Al-Shehab to 6 years in prison in mid-2022 solely for her peaceful activism on Twitter and retweets of posts by pro-women’s rights activists, including the former detained activist Loujain Al Hathloul. After appealing to the Specialized Criminal Court, on August 9, 2022, her sentence was increased to 34 years in prison in an unfair trial, followed by a 34-year travel ban from the date of her release.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed its deep concern about the verdict against Salma, and called on the Saudi government to put in place a strong legislative framework in line with international human rights law to support the right to freedom of expression and association, and the right to peaceful assembly for all.

Noura bint Saeed Al Qahtani

On January 4, 2021, Noura, a Saudi mother of five, was also arrested for her peaceful activity on Twitter and possession of a forbidden book. On February 6, 2022, she was sentenced to prison for 13 years in the Specialized Criminal Court. The sentence was then intensified on August 9, 2022, by increasing the years of imprisonment to 45, followed by a 45-year travel ban.

Noura was subjected to enforced disappearance and was prevented from communication and visits with her family. She was subjected to medical neglect, as she suffers from diabetes and other chronic diseases. Noura was accused of using Twitter to incite participation in activities that seek to disturb public order, publishing false and malicious tweets, supporting those seeking to disturb public order and destabilizing the security of society and the stability of the state, following them on YouTube, and insulting symbols of the state and its officials, demanding the release of detainees, and possession of a forbidden book.

Saad Ibrahim Al Madhi

Saad Ibrahim Al Madhi, 72 years-old, holds American citizenship and was arrested on November 21, 2021, at King Khalid International Airport. on charges related to freedom of expression for tweets he published through his account on Twitter over the years. He was traveling from Florida, his place of residence for years, to Riyadh to visit family members. After an enforced disappearance that lasted at least four months, his family learned that he had been transferred to Al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh, where he remains. On October 3, 2022, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced him to 16 years and 3 months in prison, in addition to a 16-year travel ban, and convicted him of charges of supporting and financing terrorism and undermining state security.

Mahdia Marzouki

On July 2020, Mahdia Al Marzouki, a Tunisian nurse who had been residing in Saudi Arabia since 2008, was arrested in connection with her activity on social media (Facebook and Twitter). On September 2022, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced her to 15 years in prison on charges of praising a terrorist organization through her Twitter account, and seeking to destabilize the social fabric of the country, for her retweeting. She was denied the right to a lawyer and her country’s consulate did not intervene to appoint a lawyer for her.

Conclusions and recommendations

The campaign of repression launched by Saudi authorities against all those who exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, whether expressed within its territory or abroad, is a flagrant violation of international standards, its international obligations in the field of human rights, and the Saudi criminal procedure system. This repression utilizes the repressive anti-terrorism and information-crime laws, both of which contain articles criminalizing rights such as freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Domestically, Saudi Arabia’s laws include aspects of freedom of expression but within strict and predetermined restrictions. This leads to ambiguity in prosecuting individuals who express their opinions under unjustified pretexts. In addition, Article 39 of the country’s Basic Law of Governance states that all forms of expression must not “affect the state.” Thus, all forms of expression against the state can be considered a violation of this article and liable to prosecution. Saudi authorities also use measures such as solitary confinement as a form of retaliation against prisoners. This is a violation of the Nelson Mandela Rules which set out humane obligations towards prisoners.

Articles eighteen and nineteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly state that everyone possesses freedom of speech and conscience and allowed the expression of opinions without any repercussions. However, the cases above demonstrate that Saudi Arabia does not hold itself to universal rights in these articles.

We are therefore very concerned about this escalation of Saudi Arabia’s use of the counter-terrorism regime to criminalize and unjustifiably restrict the right to freedom of expression. We call on the international community, especially countries with enormous influential diplomatic relations, such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom, to use its influence with Saudi Arabia to urge it to:

  • End the crackdown on activists and human rights defenders.
  • Cancel or amend the anti-terrorism and information crimes regulations, which criminalize dissent, and enacting new laws that are fully compatible with international human rights law and standards.
  • Release detained activists and citizens immediately and unconditionally.