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Saudi Arabia's crackdown against dissent on social media has intensified

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A crackdown in Saudi Arabia against online critics has intensified. A Saudi court recently sentenced a man to death in connection with views he expressed in tweets. Human rights advocates say he barely had any followers. NPR's Aya Batrawy joins us now from Dubai. What can you tell us about this case and the man sentenced to be executed?

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: So Saudi human rights activists say this appears to be the harshest punishment handed down yet by a Saudi court because of tweets and online expression. So the people I spoke with, they say Mohammed al-Ghamdi is a retired teacher in his mid-50s and a father of seven. He's been detained now for a year and was held in solitary confinement for months. And Human Rights Watch says he had two anonymous accounts on X, then known as Twitter. And these accounts had just 10 followers. And apparently some of these tweets in which he spoke out against government corruption were presented in court as evidence of his alleged crimes. Al-Ghamdi can appeal the sentencing.

His brother Saeed al-Ghamdi, though, thinks this case is actually meant to target him. He's a well-known Islamic scholar and runs a Saudi human rights group from exile in the U.K. When I reached him by phone, he said Saudi authorities have tried to coerce him to move back to Saudi Arabia, even offering him money.

SAEED AL-GHAMDI: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: So Saeed says he has no plans of going back because he doesn't want to be silenced.

MARTÍNEZ: I know this isn't the first case of Saudi courts punishing people for what they post on social media, but how common is this?

BATRAWY: It is hard to know the full scope because a lot of these trials happen behind closed doors, and the relatives of the defendants, even their lawyers, they're wary about speaking out. And the Saudi government also doesn't typically comment on these cases. And when officials do, they usually will say the courts are independent or they say, look, we're reforming the system as a whole and it takes time. But just in the past couple of years, we've seen prison sentences ranging from 20 to more than 40 years because of online posts.

And one of the main courts trying these cases is the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh. And this is the court that issued al-Ghamdi's verdict. This court was established originally to try terrorism cases, but it's also been used to prosecute government critics. And what prosecutors argue is that these posts online that are critical of Saudi Arabia's king and crown prince violate counterterrorism laws and cybersecurity laws because they pose a threat to national security and can destabilize society.

MARTÍNEZ: So speaking of the crown prince, we've also seen him push through some big reforms, such as allowing women to drive and lifting bans on concerts and movie theaters, things that used to be unthinkable. Can you explain how this crackdown fits in with that?

BATRAWY: Yeah. I mean, there's no doubt these moves are overhauling life in Saudi Arabia, but that also makes them extremely sensitive to push through. But activists like Lina al-Hathloul, whose high-profile sister Loujain was arrested after calling for women's rights, says change does not have to cost people their right of expression.

LINA AL-HATHLOUL: If you want to reform the country, we do it with civil society. You cannot, you know, (inaudible) it. And if you're truly reforming the country, you do it with the people. You do it in a way where you don't make people more angry about the situation in the country.

BATRAWY: But Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. And it appears the overriding message in silencing critics is that change is not going to be the result of public pressure.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy in Dubai. Thank you very much.

BATRAWY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.