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Saudi man sentenced to death for Social Media activity in a crackdown on free expression

Saeed-Al-Ghamdi

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – In a shocking development that has sent shockwaves through the international community, a Saudi court has sentenced a 54-year-old retired teacher, Muhammad al-Ghamdi, to death for his online activities on Twitter and YouTube. This case highlights the Saudi government’s growing crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful political dissent within the country.

The Specialized Criminal Court, known as Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism tribunal, convicted al-Ghamdi on July 10, 2023, solely based on his peaceful online expression. His tweets, retweets, and YouTube activity were used as evidence against him in a move denounced by Human Rights Watch as a grave escalation of repression in the country.

Saudi security forces arrested al-Ghamdi in front of his family on June 11, 2022, and held him in solitary confinement at al-Dhahban Prison for four months without access to his family or a lawyer. Later, he was transferred to al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh, where he was subjected to interrogation about his online activities and political opinions.

Al-Ghamdi’s case is further complicated by his brother, Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, a well-known Saudi Islamic scholar and government critic living in the United Kingdom. In a tweet, Saeed alleged that the ruling against Muhammad al-Ghamdi was an attempt to target him personally and coerce his return to Saudi Arabia, a tactic used by Saudi authorities against the family members of critics living abroad.

The charges against al-Ghamdi were based on Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism law, with allegations including “describing the King or the Crown Prince in a way that undermines religion or justice,” “supporting a terrorist ideology,” “communication with a terrorist entity,” and “publishing false news with the intention of executing a terrorist crime.”

Court documents revealed that al-Ghamdi’s social media accounts had minimal followers and a limited number of tweets, primarily consisting of retweets of critics of the Saudi government.

Despite the serious nature of the charges, al-Ghamdi’s acquaintances emphasize that he does not consider himself a political or human rights activist and insists he merely expressed concerns about the Saudi government on social media.

Tragically, al-Ghamdi suffers from severe mental health issues, and Saudi authorities have reportedly denied him access to necessary prescription medications, leading to a significant deterioration in his physical and mental well-being since his arrest.

This case is part of a concerning trend in Saudi Arabia, where social media users have faced harsh sentences for expressing peaceful views online. Several individuals have received lengthy prison terms for criticizing the government, including Salma al Shehab, whose sentence was increased to 27 years, and Nourah bin Saeed al-Qahtani, who was sentenced to 45 years in prison for “using the internet to tear the country’s social fabric.”

Saudi Arabia faced international scrutiny in March 2022 when it executed 81 men, including 41 from the Shia Muslim minority, despite promises to reduce the use of the death penalty.

Human Rights Watch and other international organizations have repeatedly criticized Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system for prolonged detentions without charge, denial of legal assistance, and reliance on confessions obtained under torture.

International human rights standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights ratified by Saudi Arabia, call for the use of the death penalty only for the “most serious crimes” and in exceptional circumstances. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty globally, citing its inherent cruelty, arbitrariness, prejudice, and the potential for errors.

This case has sparked international outrage and calls for Saudi authorities to reconsider the death sentence against Muhammad al-Ghamdi. Many are questioning Saudi Arabia’s commitment to becoming a more rights-respecting society in the face of such severe punishments for peaceful online expression.

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