Saudi Arabia court sentences brother of government critic to 20 years prison over social media activity: Human Rights Watch News
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Saudi Arabia court sentences brother of government critic to 20 years prison over social media activity: Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that a Saudi Arabia court sentenced 47-year-old Saudi teacher Asaad al-Ghamdi to 20 years in prison over charges relating to his social media activity. Asaad al-Ghamdi is the brother of Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, a government critic living in the UK. Human Rights Watch said that Saudi authorities often engage in transnational repression against the family members of overseas critics to coerce critics to return to Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch stated that Asaad al-Ghamdi was convicted by Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court on May 29 of offenses over his “peaceful expression online.” According to court documents, he was charged under Articles 30, 34, 43 and 44 of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism law, which include charges such as publishing false and malicious news and challenging the religion of the King and the Crown Prince, and arrested for publishing posts that harmed Saudi Arabia’s security on social media websites. Saudi authorities did not inform him of the charges imposed on him until his first trial on September 7, 2023, and did not inform him of the reason behind his arrest in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on November 20, 2022.

Human Rights Watch was told that the prosecution used Asaad al-Ghamdi’s posts on X (formerly Twitter) as evidence against him. Some of his X posts criticized changes in the Saudi government and projects associated with Vision 2030, the Crown Prince’s program to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy, and mourned the death of former human rights leader Dr. Abdallah al-Hamed who passed away in prison upon being convicted of charges relating to “peaceful human rights activism[.]”

Asaad al-Ghamdi’s court-appointed lawyer did not meet him outside court sessions or provide him with court documents on his case. His lawyer also refused to accede to his family’s request to submit evidence that he suffered from epilepsy, a medical condition that requires constant medical attention. Human Rights Watch urged Saudi authorities to immediately provide Asaad al-Ghamdi with sufficient medical attention during his detention upon being told that he was taken to a general physician, although his condition requires medical attention from a specialist. Saudi authorities held Asaad al-Ghamdi in solitary confinement for three months and did not allow him to communicate with others for almost two months. His family visited him for the first time on January 11, 2023.

Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch Joey Shea said:

Saudi courts mete out [decades-long] sentences to ordinary citizens for nothing more than peacefully expressing themselves online … The government should also stop punishing family members of critics living abroad … Saudi Arabia’s allies should condemn these sentences and demand that the Saudi government release the prisoners and end their repressive practices.

This is not the first time a rights organization has pointed out that Saudi authorities are cracking down on individuals who express their opinions. Amnesty International said that Saudi authorities targeted numerous individuals in 2023 for exercising their right to freedom of expression, resulting in arbitrary detentions, extensive trials and disproportionate lengthy prison terms or even death sentences. In addition, Amnesty International further reported in October 2022 that ten Egyptian Nubian men were imprisoned following what was described as a “grossly unfair trial.” Human Rights Watch documented a similar case in 2023, in which a man was sentenced to death based on his X and YouTube activities. The man was not granted access to legal counsel for most of his detainment.

Relatedly, on September 15, 2023, UN experts issued a formal appeal to Saudi Arabia, urging the revocation of the death sentence imposed on Mohammad Al Ghamdi, another brother of Asaad al-Ghamdi, who was accused of engaging in social media dissent over his X posts and YouTube activity. Asaad al-Ghamdi was charged under the same articles Mohammad Al Ghamdi was sentenced under. In response to Mohammed al-Ghamdi’s death sentence, Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi said that his brother’s death sentence was a false ruling intended to coerce him to return to Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch also urged Saudi authorities to provide Mohammed al-Ghamdi, who also suffers from epilepsy, with medical attention.