End The Death Penalty In the news

Don’t be fooled by MBS and his claim of Saudi reforms

An advert for Saudi Arabia’s futuristic new “smart city” popped up on my Twitter feed yesterday. Moments later I learnt that a Leeds University student, Salma al-Shehab, has been sentenced to 34 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for using the same platform to retweet and follow Saudi activists. The juxtaposition was straight out of Black Mirror: a repressive regime portraying itself as a hub of modernity while brutalising its citizens for acting in line with the progressive image it was trying to project.

Salma is not an isolated case. Salman al-Odah, a scholar and TV presenter, is facing a potential death sentence for charges including “sarcasm and mockery of the government’s achievements” and “demanding the release of prisoners on media platforms”. The charges against Hassan al-Maliki, another scholar at risk of a death sentence, include “defamatory” tweets and “possession of forbidden books”.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to prominence on the promise of reforms. In interview after interview he pledged to protect freedom of speech and curb the use of the death penalty. His actions show these promises to be a disingenuous publicity stunt. He was found to have ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and he oversaw the largest mass execution in the country’s history this year. More than half the 81 men executed were sentenced to death for attending pro-democracy protests.

The kingdom claimed to have abolished the death penalty for children, but only last year Mustafa al-Darwish was executed for taking part in protests when he was a teenager. Another young man, Mohammed al-Faraj, still faces a potential death sentence for charges which include attending a funeral when he was nine years old.

The crown prince’s attempted rebrand is directly undermined by the rounding-up of people for the “crimes” of owning books, expressing dissent or questioning the status quo, whether on social media or on the streets. But he’ll get away with it as long as he can rely on the cowardice and avarice of his international partners. Boris Johnson and Joe Biden’s visits to the kingdom this year have emboldened the regime. Salma’s sentencing is a prime example.

Read Reprieve Director Maya Foa’s full column in The Times.