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PoliticsMiddle East

Many activists remain in Saudi Arabia's jails

March 11, 2022

Raif Badawi has been released after 10 years in prison. However, the well-known blogger was not the only activist behind bars for expressing dissenting views.

Protesters from Reporters Without Borders hold a sign showing imprisoned Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi
Protesters, including one holding a sign showing imprisoned Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, demonstrate outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy on the 2nd anniversary of the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

After a decade in jail, the imprisoned Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi was released on Friday.

It follows years of campaigning for his release by human rights activists, including his wife Ensaf Haider.

Badawi spent 10 years behind bars for publishing a blog called Free Saudi Liberals. He was sentenced to a decade in prison in 2014 for "insulting Islam" because he had discussed the separation of religion and state in Saudi politics on his blog.

While Badawi was among the most prominent political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, he was by no means the only imprisoned dissident. The country has long been criticized for its human rights situation.

It is unclear how many political prisoners are incarcerated in Saudi prisons. The Saudi government claims the number is zero but human rights activists speak of hundreds. Amnesty International has reported that it suspects there may be around 3,000 political prisoners in Saudi Arabia.

Last summer, several prominent women's rights activists, including Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi's sister, were released from prison.

But Human Rights Watch says this is no indication that the situation is improving. "They [the freed activists] remained banned from travel and are serving suspended sentences, allowing the authorities to return them to prison for any perceived criminal activity," the organization wrote in their World Report 2022.

Espionage and torture allegations

Among those released in 2021 was women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. She was part of a group that had demanded that women be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Hathloul was first arrested in 2018, despite the fact that just three weeks after her incarceration, the ban on female drivers was lifted.  Throughout her time in prison, her family raised allegations of torture.

Even though she was released from prison in 2021, she is neither allowed to leave the country or to speak to journalists or human rights organizations. The Saudi state continues to closely monitor her activities.

Saudi Arabia's women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul
After her release, Loujain al-Hathloul discovered that her phone had been hacked by her own governmentImage: Lina al-Hathlul/dpa/picture alliance

Sleep deprivation and electric shocks

In 2018, aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who was working for the Red Crescent at the time, was arrested. It took three years for him to be sentenced and in April 2021, he was given a 20-year jail sentence.

His offense was making critical comments about human rights issues on an anonymized Twitter account.

Al-Sadhan's sister, Areej, who lives in the United States, told The Washington Post that the Saudi authorities had tortured her brother in detention. This included electric shocks, whippings, sleep deprivation, death threats, verbal humiliation and solitary confinement.

She also said al-Sadhan had been forced to sign documents that were later used as evidence against him in his trial.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan poses with his sister Areej Al Sadhan for a graduation photo
Human rights activist Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was sentenced after a critical tweet. Image: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

Saudi human rights activist Mohammed al-Otaibi had already served a 14-year sentence when he was sentenced to an additional year in prison in December 2020, and then to another two years in March 2021. 

Altogether he recieved a 17-year jail sentence because he founded the Union for Human Rights in Riyadh in 2013, together with three other activists. The group even officially applied to register with the Saudi authorities.

Imprisonment and lashes

International authors' association PEN ranks the country as one of the three countries in which the most authors are imprisoned. The other two nations are China and Turkey.

One of those in jail in Saudi Arabia is Palestinian-born author Ashraf Fayadh, who has been behind bars since 2013.

He is accused of apostasy, unlawful relations with women as well as writing allegedly secular and blasphemous passages in his book of poetry, Instructions from Within. PEN suggests that the true reason for the arrest could be that Fayadh had filmed and posted a clip that showed members of the religious police in Saudi Arabia whipping a man.

In 2015, Fayadh was sentenced to death. However in 2016, the sentence was commuted to eight years in prison and 800 lashes. In 2020, Saudi Arabia abolished lashing as a punishment. 

Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a fellow at the German branch of PEN, told DW that he considers everything about Fayadh's case "shameful."

The attack on Fayadh's poetry is particularly reprehensible, he said, as Saudi courts were contributing to the impoverishment of an entire culture by accusing the poet of blasphemy.

Al-Haj Saleh said that this was an example of state tyranny and religious fundamentalism. "Saudi Arabia is an example of both together," he told DW.

Palestinian artist Ashraf Fayadh
The Palestinian writer Ashraf Fayadh remains imprisoned for blasphemy and other charges. Image: Ashraf Fayadh/AP/picture alliance

Falsely accused of sodomy

Political prisoners also come from Saudi Arabia's homosexual and LGBTQ community. Members live in constant fear of being exposed and cases against them are regularly based on alleged violations of public order, religious values or public morality.

Other frequently used charges include sodomy and encouraging or promoting homosexuality.

In 2020, a Saudi court sentenced Yemeni blogger Mohamed al-Bokari to 10 months in prison and a fine equivalent to around €2,400 ($2,720).

Al-Bokari had been guilty of writing a social media post in which he defended LGBTQ rights in Saudi Arabia.

Human rights groups said Saudi security officials held al-Bokari in solitary confinement for weeks, subjecting him to forced anal examinations and physical violence.

Al-Bokari has since been released.

Yemeni blogger Mohamad al-Bokari
Al-Bokari spent 10 months in prison for demanding equal rights for gay people Image: MohammedAlbokari.i/ Facebook

Minorities under pressure

Members of the Shiite Muslim minority in Saudi Arabia are also regularly targeted by Saudi authorities for expressing critical opinions.

Numerous prison terms, as well as death sentences, have been imposed on members of the community. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim majority country. 

Human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham was arrested in 2015 after documenting anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia's eastern Qatif region, a majority-Shiite area.

Saudi Shiite protesters chant slogans during a protest in Qatif
The Qatif region in eastern Saudi Arabia has seen several uprisings by the Shiite minority in the past decadesImage: AP

Prosecutors sought the death penalty for al-Ghomgham, who would have been the first female Saudi human rights defender to be executed.

According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights, al-Ghomgham was denied access to a lawyer and was also mistreated in custody.

Her death sentence was dropped in 2019 and, in 2021, commuted to an eight-year prison term.

This article was adapted from German by Jennifer Holleis. 

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East