“There is no repression in Saudi Arabia.” – H.E. Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi, ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabian national Hamza Kashgari and Amnesty International beg to differ.
In a recent talk with the Saudi ambassador at New York University, he claimed that Saudi Arabia is a “land of opportunity” where there was no oppression of dissidents. “We don’t have a Guantanamo. We don’t have an Abu Ghraib,” he pointed out.
Saudi Arabia may not have a ‘Guantanamo’ or an ‘Abu Ghraib,’ but it has the notorious Al-Ha’ir prison and ‘Ulaysha Prison, and, according to Amnesty International’s report Saudi Arabia: Repression in the Name of Security, a new wave of repression that began in March 2011.As part of this wave, Saudi Arabia proposed a new anti-terror law, leaked to Amnesty International last fall, that has such a broad definition of “terrorist crimes” that legitimate dissent would, in effect, be criminalized. Authorities would be allowed to prosecute peaceful dissent with harsh penalties such as “terrorist crime.”
At the NYU talk, the ambassador was pressed by the audience about freedom of expression. Saudi activists particularly expressed concerns about the restriction of online freedom of speech and named several dissidents detained for their online comments.
One of them is Hamza Kashgari, the 23-year old former writer for the Jeddah-based al-Bilad daily, who tweeted about an imaginary conversation with Prophet Mohammed. Kashgari’s tweets invoked an outburst of reactions, calling for the arrest and execution of the young writer. (Take action on Hamza Kashgari case here.)
The Saudi ambassador responded by noting that Kashgari’s case is not an issue of freedom of expression, it is an issue of respect for the Islamic faith and Saudi society. Kashgari was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia on February 12th from Malaysia, after he had left the country amid death threats for the posts. He is now in detention in Saudi Arabia and at risk of being charged of apostasy, punishable by death.
Another victim of Saudi Arabia’s sweeping crackdown is Hamad al-Neyl Abu Kassawy, a 36-year-old Sudanese national, who was arrested in June 2004 when he arrived at Medina airport from Syria on his way to carry out a pilgrimage to Mecca.
It is believed Kassawy came under suspicion because of his frequent journeys as a trader, travelling between Sudan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates buying and selling household goods and clothes. He has been held without charge or trial since his arrest and is reported to have attempted to commit suicide a number of times and on one occasion he was reported to have gone on hunger strike for 21 days. (Take action for Hamad al-Neyl Abu Kassawy here.)
The stories of Kashgari and Kassawy certainly show that Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go in upholding and ensuring human rights.
Amnesty International USA Saudi country specialist Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi contributed to this post.