Saudi officials must quash the conviction and death sentence handed down by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) on 9 July against 54-year-old retired teacher Mohammad bin Nasser al-Ghamdi solely for his peaceful online activity on Twitter and YouTube and immediately release him, Amnesty International said today.
Al-Ghamdi’s brother told Amnesty International that Mohammad was arrested on 11 June 2022 by State Security forces as he sat with his wife and children in front of their house in al-Nawwariyyah neighbourhood in the city of Mecca. He said that Mohammad was kept in solitary confinement in Dhahban prison near Jeddah for four months, during which he was not allowed to contact his family or access a lawyer. Mohammad was allowed to contact his family only when he was moved to al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh, about four months after he was arrested, his brother said.
“Saudi authorities have spent billions of dollars trying to rehabilitate their image, but no amount of money can whitewash just how repressive the country has become. The death sentence against Mohammad bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, who has a total of just 10 followers on both of his anonymous Twitter accounts and is accused of nothing other than expressing his opinions on social media, is ludicrous. It is a marked escalation in the kingdom’s crackdown on any form of dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“It is impossible to believe that the Saudi authorities are genuinely interested in reform when they continue to put people to death in violation of international law, including by executing child offenders and people convicted after sham trials simply for opposing the government.”
According to the verdict of Mohammad bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, which Amnesty International reviewed, al-Ghamdi was convicted under articles 30, 34, 43 and 44 of Saudi’s counterterrorism law. His purported offences include “renouncing allegiance to the guardians of the state”; “supporting a terrorist ideology and a terrorist entity (the Muslim Brotherhood)”; “using his accounts on Twitter and YouTube to follow and promote individuals who seek to destabilize public order”; and “sympathizing with individuals detained on terrorism-related charges.” The charge sheet reviewed by Amnesty International cited several tweets based on which al-Ghamdi was convicted, including posts in which he criticized the Saudi King and Crown Prince and Saudi’s foreign policy, called for the release of detained religious clerics, and protested increased prices. He is not accused of any violent crime.
Al-Ghamdi’s brother, Dr Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, is an Islamic scholar and government critic living in self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom. He believes that his brother’s death sentence was a reprisal for his activism.
“Saudi authorities asked me several times to return to Saudi Arabia, but I refused to do so. It is very probable that this death sentence against my brother is in retaliation for my activity. Otherwise, his charges wouldn’t have carried such a severe penalty,” Dr Saeed al-Ghamdi told Amnesty International.
He also said that, during questioning, interrogators asked Mohammad bin Nasser al-Ghamdi about his political opinions and his views on other detained Saudi nationals including religious clerics Salman al-Awda and Awad al-Qarni, both of whom were detained in 2017 and face the death penalty for their political views.
Saudi Arabia must eliminate the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to kill the prisoner.
“The death penalty is a violation of the right to life and the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. And in the case of Mohammad bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, the sentence appears to be a vindictive punishment designed not only to target him, but also to act as a reprisal for the actions of at least one other family member who has been more politically outspoken,” said Philip Luther.
Over the past two years, Amnesty International has documented an escalating crackdown in Saudi Arabia against individuals using social media and the internet to voice their opinions. In 2022 alone, Amnesty International documented the cases of 15 people sentenced to terms of imprisonment of between 10 and 45 years simply for peaceful online activities, including the longest sentence of imprisonment believed to ever have been imposed on a Saudi woman for peaceful online expression.
The SCC has used vague provisions under the anti-cybercrime and counterterrorism laws which equate peaceful expression and online activity with “terrorism” to prosecute these individuals.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s top executioners. In 2022, the kingdom executed 196 people, the highest annual number of executions that Amnesty International has recorded in the country in the last 30 years. This number is three times higher than the number of executions carried out in 2021 and at least seven times higher than 2020.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. As of today 112 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and more than two thirds in total are abolitionist in law or practice.