KSA: Prosecutors seek death penalty for Saudi academic over use of social media

The Saudi court documents reveal reasons for Dr. Awad Al-Qarni’s arrest, even though Saudi rulers are major investors in social media platforms

The prominent law professor, Dr. Awad Al-Qarni, has been handed a death sentence over social media usage.

The pro-reform cleric is accused of using such platforms as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram to disseminate anti-government news, reported The Guardian.

The 65-year-old was arrested in September 2017 when then-newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) oversaw a crackdown against dissent, nominally part of an anti-corruption drive.

Prior to his arrest, Qarni had two million followers on Twitter.

The prominent pro-reform law professor in Saudi Arabia is facing the death penalty for alleged crimes including having a Twitter account and using WhatsApp to share news considered “hostile” to the kingdom, according to court documents seen by the Guardian.

The arrest of Awad Al-Qarni, 65, in September 2017 represented the start of a crackdown against dissent by the then newly named crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Qarni’s son, Nasser who fled the kingdom last year and resides in Britain where he is seeking asylum has shared the details of his father’s charges with the newspaper. In October, he described the violent circumstances surrounding his father’s arrest by armed police in civilian clothes.

“More than 100 men armed with machine guns and pistols. They were surrounding the house. We were forcibly prevented from entering the house,” he said. “It was like a battlefield.”

Public prosecutors have called for the death penalty in the case, but the court has yet to make a formal judgement.

Al-Qarni has been portrayed in Saudi-controlled media as a dangerous preacher, but dissidents have said Al-Qarni was an important and well-regarded intellectual with a strong social media following, including two million Twitter followers.

Charges against Qarni include his use of social media, specifically a Twitter account under his own name, to express his opinions. He is also accused of participating in a WhatsApp group chat and creating a Telegram account, as well as of praising the Muslim Brotherhood in videos. It is worth noting that he is facing the death penalty for these charges.

Human rights advocates and Saudi dissidents living in exile have warned that authorities in the kingdom are engaged in a new and severe crackdown on individuals who are perceived to be critics of the Saudi government.

Last year, Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds PhD student and mother of two, received a 34-year sentence for having a Twitter account and for following and retweeting dissidents and activists. Another woman, Noura al-Qahtani, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for using Twitter.

But the prosecution documents shared by Nasser Al-Qarni show that the use of social media and other communications has been criminalised inside the kingdom since the beginning of Prince Mohammed’s reign.

Jeed Basyouni, the head of Middle East and North African advocacy at the human rights group, Reprieve, said Qarni’s case is part of a trend in which scholars and academics face the death penalty for tweeting and expressing their views.

Netflix-sponsored VIP invitation to attend a Saudi government event,” said Khalid Aljabri, who lives in exile and whose father was a former Saudi intelligence officer, and whose brother and sister are being held in the kingdom.

Saudi dissidents living in the US also became aware this week that Ibrahim Alhussayen – a Saudi who had been living in the US and pleaded guilty to lying to authorities after prosectors alleged he harassed and threatened individuals living in the US and Canada – was deported back to Saudi after serving a short sentence.

One of Alhussayen’s victims posted this week that an account belonging to the harasser sought to contact her after he was released from prison. The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment.

However, the court has not yet made its final judgement against Qarni.