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Saudi Arabia is stifling dissent in the name of counter-terrorism

A new Saudi law criminalizes membership in extremist religious groups and participation in armed outside conflicts. But it's also being used to stifle dissent.
In this file photo taken Friday, Nov. 12, 2010, a Saudi policeman checks identity papers of pilgrims at a checkpoint outside Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
In this file photo taken Friday, Nov. 12, 2010, a Saudi policeman checks identity papers of pilgrims at a checkpoint outside Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

On March 9, a Saudi royal decree that criminalizes membership in extremist religious groups went into effect. The decree also makes it a crime to participate in armed conflicts outside the kingdom.

Many saw this as evidence that Saudi Arabia is finally taking its terrorism problem seriously and cracking down on Saudis who go off to fight in Syria and elsewhere. The truth, however, is that the new terrorism regulations also criminalize entirely peaceful acts. I should know, as some of the newly prohibited acts are identical to the charges I face before the kingdom’s Specialized Criminal Court on the basis of my peaceful human rights work.

In late January, the authorities handed down a new terrorism law that provides an expansive definition of terrorism and grants the interior minister unprecedented arrest powers.

"Writing this article could be considered an act of terror."'

Back in 2011, Amnesty International leaked an earlier version, causing worldwide condemnation. The authorities said the law would be modified. It has been, and mostly for the better. For example, it eliminates the harsh sentencing guidelines of the earlier version, leaving it to individual judges to refer to Islamic Sharia to determine suitable punishments.

The broad scope of the new law, however, remains troubling. The definition of terrorism in the new law includes “harming public order,” “destabilizing the security of the society and the country,” “endangering the national unity,” “suspending the basic law of governance” or “tarnishing the reputation of the state.” The mere act of calling for a constitutional monarchy has become an act of terror, since it would mean suspending a basic law stipulating that the king is the prime minister.

Contacting human rights organizations may be considered an act of terror as well, insofar as prosecutors often use it as evidence of “harming the country’s image.” In fact, I face a similar charge for being in contact with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Writing this article could be considered an act of terror.

"We are about to face a repressive and ruthless crackdown supported and promoted by law and media in the name of combating terrorism."'

What’s worse, however, is that the Interior Ministry issued further regulations based on the earlier royal decree that provide a list of prohibited “terrorist” organizations. These regulations criminalize additional peaceful acts as terrorism, including “offending other countries and their leaders” and “inciting or antagonizing countries and international organizations against the Kingdom.” Calling for “atheistic thinking” or “questioning the constants of Islam upon which this country was founded” are now formally considered acts of terrorism.

The aspect of the new terrorism categories that causes the most concern is that many human rights activities could be seen to fall under them. The language of the text is general and broad, and authorities have used some of these very charges to prosecute and lock up peaceful activists. Furthermore, the regulations are retroactive.

It appears that the Interior Ministry has snuck back in under the table through its vague regulations many of the elements the government did not include in the new terrorism law because of international outrage.

And to forestall more international criticism over the country’s long-term political prisoners, a new royal decree grants the interior minister the authority to publish public statements about prisoners whose cases have agitated the public, giving him the upper hand in influencing the media narrative around these cases. This means we are about to face a repressive and ruthless crackdown supported and promoted by law and media in the name of combating terrorism.

This isn’t just hypothetical. On April 1, a Saudi newspaper reported that prosecutors had referred three Saudis to court on vague charges such as incitement, sowing discord, and breaking allegiance with the ruler, and that they will be the first to face charges under the new regulations. According to the newspaper, their crimes stem completely from their tweets, so the first application of the royal decree against terrorism will be against three Twitter users.

In the meantime, a new movement opposing the government’s repression has emerged, and several people fed up with corruption and injustice decided to record and post videos on YouTube that show them criticizing the authorities directly. The movement was initiated by one person who recorded a message to the king about poverty and poor distribution of wealth. At least 10 other young people then did the same, to show solidarity. Authorities arrested the first three people who posted messages immediately, but the movement is continuing.

A number of these young people talked about the need to stop the Interior Ministry’s own reign of terror. As expected, the ministry responded by arresting them.

Waleed Abualkhair is a Saudi lawyer and founder and director of the group Monitor of Human Rights. He is on trial on charges that include “attempting to tarnish the reputation of the kingdom” and “inciting public opinion.” The article was written shortly before he was detained, on April 15, 2014.