September 15, 2023
Saudi Arabia’s sentencing to death of 54-year-old retired teacher Mohammed al-Ghamdi solely for peaceful social media activity marks an extraordinary new escalation in the relentless repression of free expression in the kingdom, both online and offline. It follows a string of decades-long jail sentences handed down to peaceful online activists over the past year. We, the undersigned civil society organisations, urgently call on the Saudi authorities to overturn al-Ghamdi’s conviction, end their vicious assault on free speech, and release all those detained for exercising their fundamental freedoms. We also call on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, to uphold its human rights responsibilities and ensure the safety of its users against state monitoring and surveillance.
On 10 July 2023, Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court sentenced to death Mohammed al-Ghamdi, brother of prominent Saudi dissident Saeed al-Ghamdi, solely for his social media activity. The charges brought against him under the kingdom’s draconian Counter-Terrorism Law included “describing the King or the Crown Prince in a way that undermines religion or justice” and “publishing false news with the intention of executing a terrorist crime”. The only evidence brought against him cited comments made to his handful of followers on Twitter (now renamed X) and YouTube.
While the internet was once widely perceived as a space in which people in Saudi Arabia could safely share opinions that they never dared to express in the real world, over the years it has become clear that the Saudi authorities will not tolerate free speech online, and many activists have been prosecuted under the draconian Anti-Cybercrime and Counter-Terrorism Laws for posting tweets critical of the Saudi authorities. As a result, more and more Saudis either self-censor or tweet anonymously using aliases, but evidence suggests that even then they may not be safe.
In November 2019, two former Twitter employees were charged in the United States with spying for the Saudi authorities by accessing the private data of Saudi dissidents using the platform, a breach believed to have led to the arrest of humanitarian worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, among others. Al-Sadhan is currently serving a 20-year jail term, accused of running a satirical Twitter account. His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, has filed a US civil lawsuit against Twitter, accusing the platform of becoming “a tool of transnational repression”. After Elon Musk’s take over, the platform has increasingly become an unsafe space for journalists, human rights defenders, and dissidents. According to Twitter’s own released data, the company has complied with the majority of governments’ requests for censorship or surveillance.
The Saudi kingdom is one of the world’s most prolific users of the death penalty, with 196 individuals executed last year, the highest annual figure in recent Saudi history, and at least 105 executed so far in 2023. The authorities sometimes use the loosely worded Counter-Terrorism Law to convict and sentence to death political opponents and dissidents, following deeply unfair trials in which coerced confessions are admitted as evidence in court. Last year five activist members of the Huwaitat tribe were also sentenced to death for resisting forced eviction from their homes to make way for the futuristic Neom megacity project.
Al-Ghamidi’s case marks the first known death sentence issued in Saudi Arabia solely for social media activity, reflecting a recently intensified crackdown on online expression. In recent months the Saudi courts have convicted and passed long jail sentences on many individuals for peaceful activity on social media, notably Abdullah Jelan (10 years), Salma al-Shehab (27 years), Fatima al-Shawarbi (30 years), Sukaynah al-Aithan (40 years) and Nourah al-Qahtani (45 years). To underline the authorities’ determination to suppress free speech online, the Saudi state broadcaster recently televised an interview with a man jailed for a single tweet that he “hadn’t expected” could land him in prison, brazenly sending out the chilling message that nobody is safe on social media in Saudi Arabia.
Given that the Saudi authorities have a track record of utilising X as a tool of surveillance and means to crack down on free speech, the platform’s new owner, Elon Musk, who claims to be a staunch supporter of uninhibited free speech, should take all possible measures to protect the platform’s users by strengthening privacy and safety measures on the platform as well as refraining from handing users’ personal information to the Saudi authorities. His repeated arguments against anonymity on the platform risk putting dissidents still further at the mercy of repressive states around the world. We therefore call on X to meet its corporate responsibilities, under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to respect human rights, including the right to free expression and the right to privacy, and mitigate any adverse human rights impacts linked to the platform's services and products –including protecting users’ safety and even lives, the right to anonymity.
ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Communication, Lina Alhathloul, comments: “Al-Ghamdi’s tweeting could pose no possible threat to the king or crown prince, let alone the Islamic religion. His case shows more vividly than ever why peaceful Saudi activists are having to self-censor, for fear of unjust sentencing to years in jail or, now, even execution.”
Marwa Fatafta, Access Now’s lead on digital rights in the Middle East and North Africa, comments: “Mohammed al-Ghamidi’s anonymous accounts had no more than 10 followers. To claim someone’s life for peaceful online expression marks a new obscene and frightening level of state repression and reprisal in Saudi Arabia. Twitter, now X, has increasingly become an unsafe space for activists and dissidents, yet many remain dependent on it. Self-proclaimed defender of free speech, Elon Musk, must understand the potential repercussions of his decisions and policies on people’s lives, and take urgent steps to ensure people’s privacy and safety on the platform.”
- Access Now
- ALQST for Human Rights
- ARTICLE 19
- European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR)
- Freedom House
- The Freedom Initiative
- Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
- MENA Rights Group
- PEN America
- PEN International
- Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
- SANAD Organisation for Human Rights
- SMEX (Social Media Exchange)