Dozens of journalists and activists in Saudi Arabia are still behind bars
For the past few weeks, the world has been riveted by the story of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder.
But while global attention is focused on Khashoggi’s fate, there are dozens of other dissidents, bloggers, and activists languishing behind bars in Saudi Arabia whose plights have been largely forgotten — and some whose whereabouts are unknown.
“What happened to Jamal is horrific and most tragic,” Rosie Bsheer, a Harvard professor who focuses on Saudi Arabia, told me last week before the Saudis confirmed he was killed. “But that the fate of one man, a member of the elite on all fronts, would get this much attention when dozens have met the same fate … is troubling, to say the least.”
Though the country has repressed free speech and dissent for decades, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, has ushered in a new era of brutality and repression since he rose to power in June of 2017. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 60 people are currently behind bars in the kingdom for expressing views that don’t align with the government.
Examples include Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who criticized the country’s government and was sentenced to a decade in prison in 2013 and 1,000 lashes in public.
His sister, Samar Badawi, a prominent human rights activist, was pulled from her home in the middle of the night this July and detained on unknown charges.
And Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist who protested against the ban on women’s driving, was arrested along with several other women’s rights activists in May, right before the ban was lifted. She’s been charged with treason and could face up to 20 years in prison.
While the world is galvanized by the Khashoggi case, it’s high time we start paying attention to the current abuses happening in the country, which have been ignored or pushed under the rug for too long.
Saudi Arabia has jailed dissidents for decades. But recently, things have gotten worse.
In Jamal Khashoggi’s last column for the Washington Post, published posthumously, he wrote about the dearth of free speech in many parts of the Arab world. He used the case of a fellow Saudi writer as an example.
“My dear friend, the prominent Saudi writer Saleh al-Shehi, wrote one of the most famous columns ever published in the Saudi press. He unfortunately is now serving an unwarranted five-year prison sentence for supposed comments contrary to the Saudi establishment,” Khashoggi wrote.
Many of Khashoggi’s friends who were writers and intellectuals were swept up in a crackdown last September. Earlier that year, Khashoggi himself had been banned from tweeting, and his newspaper column in the prominent pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat had been canceled.
The fact that Saudi Arabia doesn’t particularly welcome free speech or criticism of the ruling royal elite is not new to most people who live there: During the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, many activists and writers were jailed for participating in and reporting on protests that occurred in the Eastern provinces of the country. And in 2016, Human Rights Watch launched a multimedia project called “140 Characters,” which profiled people who had been imprisoned across the Gulf states for their dissident views. Several Saudis were on the list.
But the space to critique the government or express any differing views has grown a lot smaller over the past year, according to Justin Shilad, a researcher with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) who focuses on the Middle East.
The reason? MBS, the ambitious — and utterly ruthless — 33-year-old crown prince who exploded onto the Saudi political scene in 2017 when his father, King Salman, shook up the line of succession and placed his young son in the second-highest position in the land.
“Khashoggi’s death is the awful culmination of a wide-ranging and very sustained crackdown against journalists in Saudi Arabia that started in earnest last year, after MBS essentially assumed power,” Shilad told me via phone from Beirut.
According to Shilad, Saudi Arabia used to mainly target journalists on the margins — those who wrote for liberal or left-leaning online publications, or writers who pushed back against the dominant, conservative religious ideology.
After 2017, though, the crackdown expanded to include a far wider swath of journalists, writers, and bloggers — people who previously thought they were safe, like Khashoggi’s friend al-Shehi.
Shilad described al-Shehi as a writer who criticized corruption but who was also, as a columnist for the Saudi paper al-Watan, squarely within the mainstream media establishment. “Someone like him would know the red lines and what’s off limits,” he said. “It seems that under MBS, those red lines shifted dramatically.”
A few months after al-Shehi was arrested, MBS instituted one of his much-touted reforms: lifting the ban on women driving in the kingdom. However, several of the activists who had long agitated for that very change were swept up in MBS’s crackdown, and remain behind bars.
Among them is Eman al-Nafjan, who blogged in English and was well known by the international community. She protested for women’s right to drive, but also spoke out about other problems in the kingdom, like endemic corruption. Al-Nafjan was arrested in May, a month before the ban was lifted.
Nouf Abdelaziz, another blogger, was arrested in June. Abdelaziz wrote in Arabic, so her blog was easier to access for a domestic audience. To the Saudi regime, that’s far more threatening than dissident writings that only appear in English — because ordinary Saudis in the country, not just the often Western-educated elites, could read it.
“After her arrest, no one has been able to tell me any information about where she is detained, or what charges were brought against her,” Shilad said. He added that this was often the case, describing the country as a “complete black hole” of information in regard to arrests. Families might have second- or thirdhand information about where their relatives are being held, but they’re often too afraid of retribution to share it.
When it’s on the margins, it’s somewhat easier for journalists in the broader community to ignore this level of oppression and keep going about their daily lives, Shilad told me. “But the thing is, it never stays in the margins. It will spread.”
According to Sherif Mansour, also with the CPJ, at least 15 journalists are behind bars in Saudi right now — a number that has doubled since last December.
MBS’s recent crackdown and Khashoggi’s murder have created a climate of fear
Of course, it’s not just journalists who have reason to worry. Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report on the country contains a litany of problems:
Saudi authorities in 2018 continued to arbitrarily arrest, try, and convict peaceful dissidents. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists are serving long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating political and rights reforms. Authorities systematically discriminate against women and religious minorities. In 2017, Saudi Arabia carried out 146 executions, 59 for non-violent drug crimes.
Ahmed Benchemsi, the organization’s director of communications, told me that the situation for any kind of dissident in the Kingdom — from activists to social media users to clerics who disagree with the ruling religious ideology — is grim.
In light of the Khashoggi case, things seem to be getting even worse.
“People are scared. We have contacts regularly with activists in Saudi Arabia, and what can I say, they are terrorized, understandably,” Benchemsi said. “They knew the situation was not good and the space for free speech was limited before, but few people imagined the government could go to that length.”
He brought up the case of Essam al-Zamil, a Saudi economist who reportedly disagreed with MBS’s plan to take the Saudi national petroleum and natural gas company, Aramco, public. “Even expressing your views about the economy can land you in jail,” Benchemsi said.
That fear has now stretched to dissidents living abroad, who thought they were out of the government’s reach.
Ghanem al-Masarir is one example — he’s a Saudi dissident and political satirist who fled his country for London in 2003. He frequently makes videos mocking the Saudi royal family, and says he was recently attacked by two men in London who he believes to be Saudi agents.
Al-Masarir told Vox earlier this month that he fears for himself and his family, especially after Khashoggi’s death. “I think [MBS] is trying to silence me and others. If he’s willing to do that with Jamal Khashoggi, I don’t think he won’t do it with me if he has the opportunity,” al-Masarir said.
A source in the Saudi capital Riyadh told me that among certain circles in the country, the mood is “very ominous.” For people who thought they understood how far they could push against the regime, Khashoggi’s death has been a rude awakening. And now anyone who has spoken against the government has more reason to be afraid.
Although the kingdom announced on Thursday that they had concluded that Khashoggi’s murder was “premeditated,” the latest development in the ongoing investigation, they’ve also taken careful steps to protect MBS from criticism and distance him from the crime.
In many ways, in fact, business seems to be continuing as usual. While several Saudis have been arrested in connection to the Khashoggi incident, a giant Saudi investment conference in Riyadh is still taking place, and MBS gave a speech in which he decried the “heinous crime” of Khashoggi’s death — a crime he almost certainly knew about.
It’s not a good sign that the country plans to undertake reforms, despite increasing international pressure.
So what comes next?
The fact that the world has been so concerned with Khashoggi’s fate speaks to his position of privilege — his palatability within Western media circles. As many have pointed out, he spoke English, he was admired and known by many journalists in the West, and therefore he became an easy focus of sympathy.
But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that there are many others — others who are not well-regarded columnists for prominent Western newspapers — who are still suffering for their views under the current regime.
The one possible silver lining in all the tragedy and horror of the Khashoggi incident, experts say, is that it could help shine light on other cases and provide an opportunity for the international community to push for real, tangible change.
“I think the pressure is important on MBS right now, and that the pressure needs to continue until we get tangible results, including freeing those who need to be free,” Benchsemi told me.
Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor at the Washington Post, told CNN on Sunday that this is the time to “really focus attention on these others who have been disappeared or detained … without due process.”
In his last column, Khashoggi wrote that the imprisonment of writers like his friend “no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.”
Perhaps, after his death, the world will have the opportunity to prove him wrong.