Only five of the 68 Saudis arrested in a purge on dissent launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman three years ago have been released, posing a challenge to western leaders before the G20 summit due to be held in Riyadh in November.
The human rights group Grant Liberty said that just two months before Saudi Arabia chairs the G20 leaders, 63 of those arrested were still in prison, 15 held in the notorious Al Ha’ir facility, and just three had been released permanently, with a further two on temporary release.
The wave of arrests of intellectuals, clerical leaders, journalists and academics was separate to the later anti-corruption purge launched by Prince Mohammed in November 2017 against the Saudi elite, including rival factions within his own family. Saudi Arabia also imprisoned as many as 14 women’s activists in May 2018 just a month before laws were introduced allowing women to drive in the kingdom. The most prominent of those, Loujain al-Hathloul, claims to have been tortured in the presence of one of the court’s most senior officials. Saudi Arabia denies the torture claims.
A major international campaign is being mounted ahead of the G20 that is designed to embarrass the crown prince, and to press liberal democracies to say they will set conditions on their virtual or in-person attendance at the summit.
Grant Liberty, a new human rights group specialising in civil liberties in Saudi Arabia, said 63 of the 68 arrests in September 2017 could fairly be described as arbitrary detentions in that the inmates were arrested and held without stated cause for 180 days.
A total of seven could be classified as enforced disappearances since the arrests took place without informing a family member or legal counsel of arrest and place of detention.
Five are suspected to have been tortured, four denied urgent healthcare, 13 have had had no contact with their family since their arrest, 18 have been denied access to a lawyer and 13 have been held in prolonged solitary confinement beyond 15 days.
Those targeted included clerics, preachers, academics, judges, journalists and bloggers, as well as human rights activists, a nurse, a poet and government officials. Some such as Ali al-Amiri, an academic accused of fomenting sedition among Saudi youth, have been sentenced to death.
Another still under arrest is Sheikh Salman Alodah, 64, a Saudi religious scholar with more than 20 million social media followers. He was arrested on 10 September 2017, just hours of posting an apparently innocent tweet calling for harmony between nations. The tweet was regarded as disobedient since the court had ordered all religious scholars to tweet in favour of the Kingdom’s dispute with the rival Gulf state of Qatar. Alodah had been in Saudi officials’ sights for years due to his support for the Arab spring uprisings.
The venue for the G20 summit is less than 20 miles from Saudi Arabia’s maximum security prison.
Lucy Rae, a spokeswoman for Grant Liberty, said: “Three years on from Mohammed bin Salman’s September purge, the activists, campaigners, scholars and journalists he has arrested have been tortured, held in solitary confinement and kept from seeing their families. Today, more of these victims face the death penalty than have been permanently released.
“While governments of the world allow the Saudi regime to bask in the limelight of the G20 presidency, these prisoners of conscience are left to rot in jail on trumped up or non-existent charges. If human rights mean anything to the British government and the rest of the G20, they must demand their release ahead of November’s G20 in Riyadh or boycott the summit.”
The crown prince – the son of King Salman and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler – believes he has cleared his name with world leaders after a torrent of international condemnation over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Both the CIA and a UN special envoy have directly linked Prince Mohammed to the killing – a charge the kingdom vehemently denies.
On 7 September a Saudi court overturned five death sentences over the murder in a final ruling that jailed eight defendants for between seven and 20 years. Diplomats from the five permanent members of the security council were allowed to attend the trial that began in January 2019, but were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.
On the same day as the verdicts, the crown prince spoke to Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron to discuss arrangements for the G20 summit. He did the same with Boris Johnson the day afterwards, and one day after that he called Xi Jinping, Narendra Modiand Angela Merkel.