DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Relatives of Saudis facing heavy sentences for social media posts are calling on the kingdom’s de facto ruler to take action after he voiced shame over their cases.
In a rare interview with Fox News last week, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was asked about Mohammed al-Ghamdi, a retired school teacher sentenced to death in July for posts on X, formerly Twitter, where he had around 10 followers.
Prince Mohammed acknowledged that details of the case described in media reports were “true” and said he disapproved of the judgment.
“We are not happy with that. We are ashamed of that,” he said, blaming “bad laws” he had so far been unable to change.
He also raised the possibility that Ghamdi might be spared death.
“I’m hoping that in the next phase of trials, the judge there is more experienced. And they might look at it totally differently,” Prince Mohammed said.
The comments raised hackles among human rights activists who have denounced repression since Prince Mohammed became first in line to the throne six years ago, which they say is intended to stamp out criticism of the government.
Activists have long urged that sentences such as Ghamdi’s be overturned.
Ghamdi’s brother, United Kingdom-based government critic Saeed al-Ghamdi, told AFP this week that Prince Mohammed could change the laws — and shape the outcomes of individual cases — if he wanted to.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no elected parliament and does not allow political opposition.
Judges are appointed by royal orders.
“Everything is in the hands of the crown prince,” Saeed al-Ghamdi said.
“Since he discovered that there are judicial rulings he is ashamed of, he has the opportunity to cancel them.”
He added: “I hope that there will be a real retreat, not only in reversing the death sentence but in releasing him and [people caught up in] all similar cases.”
‘New bad laws’
Ghamdi was tried under a counterterrorism law passed in 2017, the same year Prince Mohammed became crown prince.
At the time, Human Rights Watch condemned the law’s “vague definition of terrorism, which could allow authorities to continue to target peaceful criticism.”
Joey Shea, Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told an online press conference this week that the application of the counterterrorism law undermines Prince Mohammed’s claim that Ghamdi’s sentence is the product of old laws that haven’t been changed yet.
“These are not old bad laws,” she said.
“These are new bad laws that came into effect in 2017 when Mohammed bin Salman was crown prince.”
The specific allegations against Mohammed al-Ghamdi center on posts criticizing the government and expressing support for jailed religious clerics including Salman al-Awda and Awad al-Qarni.
Prosecutors have also sought the death penalty against both of those men.
Awda’s son, Abdullah Alaoudh, said he did not find Prince Mohammed’s expression of shame over the Ghamdi case to be credible.
The crown prince’s statements “are not serious and are part of evasion, an attempt to address the American people” and improve his image, said Alaoudh, Saudi director of the Washington-based Freedom Initiative.
Areej al-Sadhan, whose brother is serving a 20-year jail term for social media posts critical of the monarchy, said Prince Mohammed had the power to reverse such sentences.
“With one signature, he can release all these innocent prisoners who have been sentenced under this law,” she said, referring to the counterterrorism law.
‘Behind closed doors’
Saudi Arabia also came under heightened global scrutiny last year for decades-long sentences handed down against two Saudi women, Salma al-Shehab and Nourah al-Qahtani, for online posts critical of the government.
A Saudi official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, told AFP that harsh sentences for social media posts were the work of conservative judges who wanted “to embarrass the crown prince in front of the world.”
Prince Mohammed wants to rebrand Saudi Arabia under his Vision 2030 reform agenda, which aims to transform the Gulf kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, including through global tourism and by turning it into a business hub.
The prolific use of the death penalty, however, has been a major obstacle in that effort. The kingdom has a history of carrying out executions by beheading.
So far this year, 111 executions have been carried out, according to an AFP tally based on state media reports.
During his Fox interview, Prince Mohammed said he was “trying to prioritize the change [of laws] day by day” but was slowed by a shortage of government lawyers.
Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communication for the rights group ALQST, said there should be more transparency when it comes to how existing laws are applied.
“If everything is happening behind closed doors,” she said, “we cannot say that the government is really ready to change the situation.”