Skip to main content
Amnesty International UK
Log in

Saudi Arabia: twelve football fans could face five years in jail for match chants

Twelve supporters of Al Safa FC, from the country’s Eastern Province, are accused of ‘sectarian’ Shia chants

Case highlights ‘serious risks’ that fans face in Saudi Arabia even as the country remains the sole bidder for the 2034 World Cup

‘Football fans worldwide should be paying close attention to the outcome of this case’ - Heba Morayef

Twelve football fans Authorities in Saudi Arabia could be jailed for five years for reciting a folkloric chant commemorating the birth of Imam Ali - a figure revered by Shia Muslims - at a football match in January and publishing a video of it on social media.

The fans are members of the Al Safa Football Club supporters’ association, a club - currently playing in Saudi Arabia’s second division - based in Sawa City in the country’s Eastern Province. 

The dozen supporters were among more than 150 people originally summoned and questioned in early February, days after the game on 24 January. The 12 are set to have a trial hearing tomorrow, and Amnesty International is calling for their immediate release. 

Security officials forced those summoned for interrogations to sign documents confessing that they “recited sectarian phrases” according to activists interviewed by Amnesty, with the threat of detention used to elicit the signatures. In a joint statement issued today, Amnesty and eight other civil society organisations strongly condemned the arrest and prosecution of the 12 football fans.

According to court documents reviewed by Amnesty, the Saudi Arabia’s authorities have charged the 12 under the kingdom’s Anti-Cybercime Law which prohibits the “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals and privacy, through the information network or computers”. 

In addition to the charges aced by the 12, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation has announced disciplinary measures against Al Safa saying that its fans’ chants “violated the provisions of the disciplinary and ethics regulations”. The club has been fined 200,000 Saudi Arabia Riyals (around £42,000) and is required to play its next five home matches behind closed doors. 

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said:  

“At a time when the Saudi authorities are spending billions on sportswashing and laundering their image globally, the arrest of these football fans is the latest stark illustration of their massive crackdown on freedom of expression.

“A minority religious group was exercising their right to express their religious folklore. The Saudi authorities must immediately release the 12 fans and drop the baseless charges against them.

“Saudi Arabia is currently the sole bidder to host the 2034 World Cup and this case highlights the serious risks that football fans face, as they may be criminalised under vague and abusive criminal legislation simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

“Football fans worldwide should be paying close attention to the outcome of this case.

“The Saudi authorities must allow people to express themselves freely and without fear of repression and reprisal.”

Persecution of Shia minority

Members of Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslim community - which constitutes about 15% of the country’s population, its largest religious minority - have routinely been prosecuted for their political protests, including demands for equal rights. Courts have meted out harsh prison terms and death sentences as a political weapon against the Shias to crush dissent. 

Amnesty has documented how the Saudi authorities have repeatedly used the country’s Anti-Cybercrime Law and other laws to crack down on the rights to freedom of expression, conscience and religion. Those peacefully expressing views on a range of societal issues - including supporting women’s rights - have been deemed threats to national security. In a recent report, Amnesty analysed the country’s leaked draft penal code, which doesn’t guarantee freedom of religion or conscience, and criminalises conduct that is protected under international law, including with “blasphemy” and “apostasy” laws. 

View latest press releases