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Saudi Arabia: dramatic escalation in jailings for online dissent in past year

Leeds University PhD student Salma al-Shehab had her initial six-year jail term increased to 34 years last August © Private

At least 67 people prosecuted for their opinions, with one woman jailed for 45 years

Crackdown follows appointment of new judge who was allegedly part of Khashoggi ‘clean-up’ squad

‘These shocking sentences send a chilling reminder to all Saudi citizens and residents that any dissent will not be tolerated’ - Philip Luther

Over the past year, the Saudi Arabian authorities have escalated their crackdown on people who have criticised the country online, Amnesty International said today, with the country’s notorious Specialised Criminal Court meting out decades-long sentences. 


The dramatic increase in the length of the court’s sentences follows the appointment of a new judge as president last June. The new president 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.

Amnesty has documented 15 cases of people (see below for details) who were sentenced in 2022 to prison terms of between ten and 45 years simply for peaceful online activities, including the longest sentence ever thought to have been imposed on a Saudi woman for peaceful online expression.

Saudi Arabia has also infiltrated at least one social media company to unlawfully obtain information on dissidents and control the information being disseminated about the country online.

All 15 people were prosecuted by the Specialised Criminal Court which was originally set up to try terrorism cases. The court has used vague provisions under anti-cybercrime and terrorism laws which equate peaceful expression and online activity with “terrorism” to prosecute people and Amnesty has documented how every stage of the judicial process in the court is tainted by human rights violations.

The 15 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 being denied access to a lawyer throughout their pre-trial detention. Some were also subjected to arbitrary travel bans in contravention of international human rights law.

The crackdown on online expression is only one tool being used by the Saudi authorities to repress dissent. In all, Amnesty has documented the cases of 67 people who have been prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly - including human rights defenders, peaceful political activists, journalists, poets and clerics. Of these, 32 were prosecuted for peacefully expressing their opinions on social media. Amnesty believes the real number is likely to be much higher.

Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said:

“These shocking sentences send a chilling reminder to all Saudi citizens and residents that any dissent will not be tolerated. 

“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.

“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. 

“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.”

Jailed for tweets

Amnesty has reviewed court documents and spoken to the families and friends of the 15 people given lengthy sentences primarily for their activities on social media.

Last August, the Leeds University PhD student and mother of two, Salma al-Shehab, from Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority, had her initial six-year jail term increased on appeal to 34 years by the Specialised Criminal Court, a sentence which is to be 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. Al-Shehab had around 2,000 followers.

On the same day al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years, Noura al-Qahtani, a Saudi mother of five in her late-40s, had her 13-year jail sentence for peaceful online expression increased to 45 years. She was also given a 45-year travel ban, her mobile phone was confiscated and her Twitter account closed. Last September, Mahdia al-Marzougui, a Tunisian nurse and Saudi resident, had her sentence for her Twitter comments on events in Tunisia increased by the Specialised Criminal Court from three-and-a-half to 15 years in prison, to be followed by deportation. She had fewer than 100 Twitter followers. According to her family, al-Marzougui was also held in solitary confinement.

Saad Ibrahim Almadi, a 72-year-old Saudi-US citizen and retired engineer, 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 Specialised Criminal Court’s appeals court increased an initial prison sentence against Almadi of 16 years and two months to 19 years plus a 19-year travel ban. Almadi was charged over a series of tweets critical of Saudi Arabia 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. 

Mohammed al-Rabiah, a supporter of the right for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in May 2018 during a crackdown on human rights defenders. Last December, the Specialised Criminal Court’s reportedly increased his initial prison sentence from six to 17 years despite the completion of his sentence last September. Last October, the Specialised Criminal Court also sentenced ten Egyptian Nubians, a minority ethnic group indigenous to southern Egypt and northern Sudan, to between ten and 18 years on charges of posting on social media and for showing solidarity with an outlawed Islamist organisation. Some of the men, one family member told Amnesty, have serious health issues. Earlier this month, following their lawyer’s appeal, the Specialised Criminal Court upheld their prison sentences.

Infiltration of Twitter

It is unclear how the Saudi government identified those mentioned above or why it chose to target them. However, these recent prosecutions coincide with revelations that the Saudi authorities have infiltrated Twitter in order to collect information on dissidents. In December, 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 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”. 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.

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