ISTANBUL — The disappearance and likely murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi here in Turkey appears to be the most dramatic example so far of a severe crackdown on dissidents undertaken by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to punish his critics.
Since September 2017, there has been a wave of arrests of academics, writers, and religious figures in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International. But no one knows quite how many because of growing intimidation targeting the families of those arrested. Saudi prosecutors, who report directly to the Crown Prince’s Presidency of State Security, have begun calling for the death penalty for regime critics.
Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate last Tuesday to fill out papers so he could marry a Turkish citizen, but he never came out, Turkish police said. The Saudi government has insisted that Khashoggi left the mission, but Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that it produce evidence. Turkey now says it will search the premises. It remains to be seen if that will include forensic work on the suspected crime scene.
The American branch of PEN, a group that defends writers’ rights, said if the “state-sponsored assassination” of Khashoggi is true, it “is a shocking abomination.” But it was also unique, for while journalists and writers are targets of political leaders, assassinations of citizens don’t take place inside their country’s consulates, said Pen’s Summer Lopez.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday he was “concerned” about Khashoggi’s disappearance. “There’s some pretty bad stories about it. I do not like it.”
If it is a kidnapping, this would not be the first time Saudi authorities abducted a Saudi national abroad.
A BBC documentary last year cited three instances where Saudi princes were abducted – from Switzerland, Morocco and Italy. But these took place over a span of 13 years, from 2003 to 2016, a year before Salman became the Crown Prince. In a case that went before a Swiss court, the abduction of Sultan bin Turki bin Abdulaziz, the nephew of late King Fahd, masked men beat him and injected an anesthetic while he was visiting a relative’s home, then rushed him to a waiting Medevac plane at Geneva airport and flew him to Saudi Arabia.
The crown prince, widely known by the initials MBS, has gained favorable publicity worldwide as a modernizer, in particular for allowing women to drive, starting last June. But one month before the ban was lifted, women driving advocates were arrested in a crackdown against freedom of speech.
Thirteen women activists were detained this year, among them the most famous women’s rights campaigner, Lujain al Hathloul, who was arrested in 2014 and 2017 for demanding the right to drive. Many of them subsequently became “targets of a defamation campaign, publishing their names and faces and branding them traitors,” says Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher. “It’s grotesque.”
“The more [MBS] is opening spaces for women and giving them limited freedom, the more aggressively the state is going after women advocates,” said a Saudi activist in the United States. “The state narrative is that these women are traitors to the regime.” The activist asked not to be identified by name or location out of fear the government will arrest members of her family. “If one of my family went into prison, I could not get them out,” she told The Daily Beast.
But there are a great many more arrests. In an interview with Bloomberg last week, MBS said 1,500 Saudis have been arrested in the past three years, but most of the arrests have “nothing to do with freedom of speech.” Many, he said, “have links with intelligence against Saudi Arabia or extremism or terrorists.”
The U.S. State Department appears more skeptical. In the annual human rights overview issued in April, it noted that the Saudi government maintains “there are no political prisoners, including detainees who reportedly remained in prolonged detention without charge.” But it reported that “local activists and human rights organizations claimed there were ‘hundreds,’ or ‘thousands.’”
“The number is unknown, and there isn’t a list of names,” said Saudi lawyer Ali Alhaji, who now lives in Germany. “Families fear to speak when a family member is arrested,” he told The Daily Beast. “There is an unprecedented condition of intimidation and fear in the country.”
Amnesty has documented as many as 30 people detained since May alone, some of whom had been released, but HRW’s Coogle said he could not describe the true dimensions of the crackdown. “I wish I could answer this,” he said. Lists circulated by Saudi activists often included 60-70 names. Meanwhile those arrested for alleged ties to Islamic extremist groups “is so shrouded in secrecy that we don’t have a lot of information.”
Meanwhile, according to HRW’s count, 25 to 30 human rights activists languish in Saudi jails, having been sentenced to 10 years or more in 2013-14 – before MBS became crown prince. They were sentenced by the “Specialized Criminal Court” created to handle terrorism suspects, although the “crime” was to call for peaceful political reform, such as transforming the absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy.
That now seems like the good old days.
In June last year, as he was elevating MBS, his son, from defense minister and president of the Royal Court crown prince and heir-apparent, Saudi King Salman removed his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef as interior minister. He also moved the prosecution of crimes from the interior ministry into a new institution — the Presidency of State Security, which reports to the Royal Court. And in October 2017, a revision of the counter-terrorism law introduced the death penalty as the maximum punishment.
The impact has been felt in one court hearing after another, where prosecutors – who effectively report to the crown prince, now regularly demand the death penalty for what HRW’s Coogle describes as “non-serious crimes.” Last month, Saudi prosecutors charged Salman al Awda, 61, with 37 counts, none of them linked to acts of violence, and demanded the death penalty.
Al Awda is accused of having ties with the banned Muslim Brotherhood and with the government of Qatar, with which the Saudi government is currently in confrontation. But according to HRW, his main public posture is to advocate greater democracy and social tolerance.
In August, the public prosecution sought the death penalty against five activists in the mainly Shia Eastern Provinces, including a woman, Israa al-Ghomgham, for what HRW said were charges “solely related to their peaceful activism.”
In Saudi Arabia, capital punishment generally means beheading. The instrument used is a sword.
Saudi Arabia has no written penal code, and judges rely on Sharia, Islamic religious law, to reach their verdicts. But courts flout the most basic principles of the rule of law. Among the charges against Al Awda are that he supported the Union of Muslim Scholars, a group the Saudi state declared a terrorist front for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, an Islamic political movement founded in 1928, advocates popular control of governments that adhere to Islamic doctrine. But the scholars’ group wasn’t declared a terrorist organization until one month after Al Awda’s arrest, Coogle said.
Saudi insistence on banning the Brotherhood was sharply criticised by Khashoggi. In one of his last columns in The Washington Post, he argued there can be “no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is part of it.” Eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood, he wrote Aug. 28, “is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes.”
Activists are often arrested after making legal appeals, because prosecutors view them as “disobedience to the Wali al Amr,” a term in Islamic ideology referring to the government, the ruler or the duly constituted authorities, Saudi lawyer Ali Alhaji said. “These are very simple and normal demands, but prosecutors turn them into charges of stirring public emotions, incitement, or provoking sedition.”
Also banned and punishable is talking to the mass media, he said. Charges against the women driving advocates include the violation of a Royal Decree 44A of 2014, which prohibits cooperating with foreign entities against the state.
But judges don’t really cite the law in rendering their verdicts, according to Amnesty’s Dana Ahmad. “They justify it under Sharia law,” which allows for punishment under the principle of Taz’ir, at the discretion of the judge. And that’s what prosecutors are demanding.