Lara Kajs | 4 April 2022 |
Saudi Arabia has a history of zero-tolerance for punishing, executing, and disappearing people who call attention to its policies of violating freedom of speech and human rights abuses. Raif Badawi, Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, former advisors, and Jamal Khashoggi are only a few of the people who have paid a price for speaking out against the Saudi government and its practices in the country.
Saudi Arabia is among the world’s top executioners with dozens to hundreds of people gruesomely and publicly executed annually – most often in public beheadings. It is also known for its public display of punishment, until recent years, the most common of which is public flogging or whipping.
Arguing that it contradicted sharia law, the country rejected the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Saudi government frequently imposes travel bans, prohibits public speaking, blocks the use of social media, and prevents individuals from working in human rights professions – all of which violate freedom of expression and peaceful assembly within the country, as well as freedom of movement outside the country. In effect, anyone targeted by the Saudi regime could be a prisoner within the confines of the country for as long as the government dictates – or worse – be tortured, killed, or disappeared.
In 2012, Raif Badawi, a Saudi human rights blogger, was charged with insulting Islam” and disobedience. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes. On January 9, 2015, Mr. Badawi was taken from his cell and transported by bus to the town of Jeddah, where he received 50 lashes in front of the al-Jaffali mosque. The flogging of Raif Badawi outraged the world. The second round of flogging was postponed because his wounds had not healed, and Saudi officials did not feel he could withstand another round of flogging. They delayed the flogging because he was not well enough to be flogged. Eventually, the remainder of Mr. Badawi’s floggings were suspended, and on April 26, 2020, Saudi Arabia abolished flogging as a form of punishment.
Raif Badawi was released from a Saudi prison in March 2022, however, his release called for a ten-year travel ban, and he is prohibited from using social media for the next ten years. Mr. Badawi’s wife and children live in Canada. Canadian legislation voted to grant him citizenship for humanitarian reasons, however, the travel ban makes it impossible for him to join his family. Canada has repeatedly called for the Saudi government to release all of its prisoners of conscience; a request that has resulted in hostile relations between the two countries. However, in 2021, Saudi Arabia began releasing a number of activists as a result of global pressure, including Badawi’s sister, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadan, and Loujarn al-Hathloul, who had campaigned to legalize driving for women in Saudi Arabia.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was from the Shia area of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. His crime was criticizing the Saudi government for its treatment of Saudi Shia, as well as calling for free elections in Saudi Arabia. He was popular with the youth. Sheikh Nimr encouraged the youth to protest peacefully and raise their voices for change. In 2006, he was arrested by Saudi authorities and beaten by the Mabhith – the Saudi secret police. During the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012, Sheikh Nimr took the lead in Saudi Arabia, encouraging protestors to resist police bullets with their voices and not resort to violence. In 2012, he was shot, arrested, and tortured. Two years later, he was sentenced to death. He was beheaded during a mass execution along with forty-six other people. Sheikh Nimr’s execution was condemned by human rights groups and governments around the world. His brother, Mohammad al-Nimr was arrested the same day for tweeting about the mass execution. Mohammad al-Nimr was killed a year later.
Culture of Intolerance
Since King Salman took office in 2015, he has systematically carried out a zero-tolerance policy for criticism against the government, which has annihilated any space for public dialogue among Saudi writers and intellectuals. Critical thinkers such as Jamal Khashoggi have been silenced by threats, imprisonment, and murder. Dissenters in Saudi Arabia walk a fine line, keeping a low profile and avoiding interaction with authorities, careful not to offend or bring unfavorable attention to themselves.
After spending two years in prison for “inciting instability” after he spoke publicly about the financial outlook of Saudi Arabia, one advisor was punished with a travel ban, frozen bank accounts, and was barred from managing his own personal assets and personal property. When a colleague died in detention, the former advisor spoke out against the abuses of the Saudi government. The next time he was arrested, he was never seen or heard from again. He was “disappeared”.
And then there’s the undeniable evidence that the Saudi government sent a hit team to murder and dismember Washington Post writer and US resident, Jamal Khashoggi. Video and audio recorded the gruesome events that led to Jamal Khashoggi’s end. Video cameras from the street show members of the assassination team carrying out bags filled with what investigators believe to be the dismembered parts of Mr. Khashoggi’s body.
Contempt for Freedom of Expression
The Saudi regime insists it balances human rights with religion and cultural values, but what human rights framework justifies murdering, dismembering, and disappearing people? What human rights framework supports the bombing of school buses filled with children, targeting hospitals and residential areas? These are all actions taken by the Saudi Arabian government. Enablers of such behaviors include countries that value arms sales over human life and human rights.
Western allies need to bring meaningful pressure on Saudi Arabia and challenge its human rights record. The regime chronically enforces a tyrannical fear against the citizens of Saudi Arabia.
During the UN Human Rights Council forum in Geneva, a Saudi diplomat called the allegation of having prisoners of conscience unfounded and insisted that no persons had been detained, arrested, or imprisoned for exercising the right to freedom of speech or defending human rights.
Yet, Raif Badawi (and many others like him), have been imprisoned for ten years for exercising his right to freedom of speech, and many others have been killed outright. Saudi authorities have a clear contempt for freedom of expression. The regime has been known to prevent former prisoners from leaving to avoid bad press from speaking about their experiences. Essentially, prisoners of conscience, released from a Saudi prison, may be prevented from leaving the country indefinitely… making them prisoners of the kingdom.
Photo Credit: 467 Survivors Amid Rubble – Felton Davis