For the third consecutive day, calls continue on social media to “save” and release the 66-year-old Saudi preacher and academic Awad al-Qarni, following reports that the kingdom's public prosecutor had called for the execution of the sheikh, who has been detained since 2017.
On January 15, the British newspaper The Guardian quoted al-Qarni's son, Nasser, who had fled the kingdom a few months ago and sought protection in the United Kingdom, that prosecutors in Saudi Arabia are seeking the death penalty for his father on charges of misusing social media and sending “hostile” messages to the kingdom's rulers.
Al-Qarni was arrested in September 2017 during the first crackdown against dissent that came following the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under the name of "reform" and the elimination of the radical religious awakening movement.
While pro-government media in Saudi Arabia insist on portraying al-Qarni as a "dangerous terrorist", opponents of the government say he is a highly respected pro-reform intellectual with a strong social media following of about two million followers on Twitter alone.
According to prosecution documents that Nasser al-Qarni shared with the Guardian, the charges against his father since his arrest include the preacher's "confession" to using a social media account in his name and exploiting it "at every opportunity... to express his opinions", his "admission" to being part of a WhatsApp chat, and his praise of the Muslim Brotherhood in several videos.
Because of his “hostile” activity towards the state on WhatsApp, Twitter, and Telegram, the Public Prosecution in #SaudiArabia seeks the #DeathPenalty for preacher #AwadAlQarni, sparking a campaign to demand his release through the hashtag #SaveAwadAlQarni
“It is unacceptable to remain silent any longer"
Although no official verdict has yet been issued against al-Qarni, the news of his execution order has alarmed dozens of Arab tweeters, who launched the hashtag #SaveAwadAlQarni to demand his release.
The “Prisoners of Conscience” account, which has more than 455,000 followers on Twitter and is concerned with political prisoners in the kingdom, called for "the immediate release of preacher Awad al-Qarni” and demanded that “all unfair charges be dropped against him". It also stated that during his detention he was subjected to "solitary confinement" and "health and medical negligence that caused him to be hospitalized”.
Activist Noura al-Harbi said, "History will write that while many nations enjoy freedoms and have freedom of expression, Saudi Arabia sentences Sheikh #AwadAlQarni to death simply for expressing his opinion”, adding that "It is unacceptable to remain silent in the face of these violations any longer”.
As proof of his courage, many circulated a clip of Sheikh al-Qarni in a previous televised debate, in which he says, "I do not seek the sympathy of anyone. I was imprisoned, I was prevented from speaking, I was fired from university, and my books were banned because of your incitement. But I didn’t seek anyone's sympathy, I didn’t knock on the door of any official, and I didn’t ask for anything for myself... I stayed 16 years without speaking out, and I did not write a single letter. I am merely expressing myself, my conscience, my religion, and my faith, and I am protecting the sanctities of my nation, its society, its youth, and its generations."
In response, a number of Saudi tweeters attacked the preacher and the solidarity campaign in his support, even going as far as to describe those participating in the hashtag as "traitors", stating that the preacher had "insulted and instigated, and his way of thinking is takfiri and hateful". They considered that al-Qarni deserves the fate that befell him as "a cleric who entered himself into politics, challenged and doubted, called for jihad, and insulted God," according to their claims.
"The kingdom seeks to highlight its image internationally as an investor in technology, modern infrastructure, sports and entertainment" at a time when prosecutors are calling for the execution of people for their chats and posts on social media
A new crackdown?
The "Prisoners of Conscience" account pointed out that the demand for the death penalty is not limited to al-Qarni only, but also to a number of political prisoners, including preacher Salman al-Awda and Sheikh Hassan Farhan al-Maliki. Since 2019, there have been recurring reports of the death sentence for al-Qarni and al-Awda.
But a panel of observers believes Riyadh will not risk executing any of the prominent religious figures it arrests at a time when it seeks to promote itself as an open country that attracts Western investment, and the regional headquarters of giant companies. while also promoting itself as a tourist destination.
Meanwhile, a number of Saudi human rights defenders and dissidents living in exile have warned that the kingdom's authorities are engaged in a "new and severe crackdown" against people they consider critics of the government.
They cite the unprecedented sentences handed down in 2022 against PhD student Salma al-Shehab at Leeds University to 34 years in prison, as well as the sentencing of Noura al-Qahtani to 45 years in prison on charges related to their use of social media.
In its article, The Guardian pointed out the irony of Saudi authorities punishing citizens for using social media while seeking through its sovereign wealth fund or some of its top businessmen to own financial stakes in the most popular social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook.
Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal is the second largest investor in Twitter after Elon Musk's takeover of the company. Al Waleed was one of those detained in what the Saudi government stated was an anti-corruption purge in 2017, but one that critics saw as a crackdown and extortion campaign. Al Waleed was released after a secret "understanding" agreement was reached with the kingdom's leaders.
Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund has increased its stake in Meta, which owns Facebook and WhatsApp.
Commenting on this, Jeed Basyouni, head of Middle East and North African Advocacy at human rights group Reprieve, told the Guardian that, regarding Saudi investment in Facebook and Twitter, "if it weren't so sinister, it would be farcical. It is consistent with the way they’re operating under the leadership of this crown prince."
She continues, "The Kingdom has been seeking to project an image internationally as an investor in technology, modern infrastructure, sports, and entertainment. But at the same time, that is fully irreconcilable with all the cases we are seeing, where we are talking about the public prosecutor – under the guidance of Mohammed bin Salman – calling for people to be killed for their opinions, for tweets, for conversations,” adding that “They are not dangerous, they’re not calling for an overthrow of the regime”.