Saudi Arabia: Ongoing violations of freedom of expression on and off the Internet and restrictions of diverse opinions


Since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince of Saudi Arabia in June 2017, a new era of massive violations of the civil and human rights of human rights defenders, including bloggers and Internet activists, and the general public, has begun. Restrictions on diverse opinions has become a reality, as documented in this report by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).

The crown prince’s rise was followed on 20 July 2017 by the establishment of a new repressive security apparatus, the Presidency of State Security, by order of King Abdullah, comprising all security forces, and linked to the Prime Minister, a position held by the King himself.

After these dangerous developments, Saudi Arabia has quickly turned into a police state that suppresses the voices of opponents by arbitrary arrest and detention, sometimes torturing them in prison, as happened to the prominent woman human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul, or killing them, as happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi and human rights defender Dr. Abdulallah Al-Hamid after he was prevented w from obtaining proper medical care in prison. In addition, prison sentences were issued successively against human rights defenders and other activists on false charges, and in trials that lacked minimum international standards for fair trial and legal procedures.

Furthermore, the Saudi authorities have often harnessed the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC or the Terrorism Court), which was established in 2008 to hear cases of terrorism, in order to restrict the diversity of opinions and put human rights activists and reform advocates in prison for long periods.

Violations of the Criminal Procedure System

The dominant feature of most arrests that are carried out under direct orders from the Presidency of State Security and are executed directly by it or by other security services and forces, is that they are often arbitrary, and in violation of Articles 36 and 37 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Article 36 (1) states that, "The detainee shall be treated in a manner that preserves his dignity and shall not be physically or morally harmed. He shall be informed of the reasons for his arrest, and he shall have the right to contact whomever he deems to inform them." While Article 37 states the following, "No one may be detained except in prisons or places of detention designated for that [purpose] by law." There are many citizens who are languishing in official or secret Saudi prisons and do not know the reasons behind their detention or the nature of the charges against them, in addition to the widespread pattern of raiding citizens’ homes, especially human rights activists, including Internet activists, ransacking the contents of the house, confiscating personal belongings and making arbitrary arrests, all of which is taking place. without a court order. Detainees are often denied regular contact with their families and are not allowed to hire a lawyer even during their trials.

Electronic intelligence committees

The General Directorate of Investigation (Al-Mabahith), which represents the secret police and is affiliated with the Presidency of State Security, has established, under direct orders from Mohammed bin Salman, the electronic intelligence committees that include large numbers of electronic flies, and their task is limited to monitoring cyberspace and inciting attacks on free voices calling for reform and opposing the government's repressive policies.

Among the tasks assigned to the members of the electronic committees, the electronic flies, is to carry out electronic harassment of the accounts of many Internet activists on Twitter, which are characterised by their opposition and call for respect for human rights.

Electronic intelligence accounts

One of the responsibilities of the electronic committees is the creation of electronic intelligence accounts, whose main task is to intimidate and harass Internet activists, opponents and critics of government policies online. Some of these accounts affiliated with the Saudi electronic flies launched a large campaign to dig up old tweets and incite the arrest of other opinion holders or who are popular among citizens, especially the youth category. 

Amani Al-Zain

The arrest of Internet activist Amani Al-Zein came after a major campaign launched by electronic flies against her on Twitter with the hashtag: #Amani_Al-Zein_offends_the Crown Prince. This electronic army consists of government supporters and spies on the Internet who have demanded her arrest.

An old recording of a video chat between Al-Zain and Egyptian Internet activist Wael Ghonim has spread widely on social networks in which Al-Zain called the Saudi crown prince by the nickname "Abu Munshar" ("father of the saw"), referring to the order he issued to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose body was cut up with a saw at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 02 October 2018.

On 17 May 2020, the Presidency of State Security arbitrarily arrested Al-Zain, on direct orders issued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. She remains in detention in an unknown location since her arrest in Jeddah. Reliable reports recently received by GCHR confirmed that she has not been allowed to contact her family so far, and has also been denied access to a lawyer. She was working as the Human Resources Manager for the Hala Group of Companies in the Middle East.

Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan

Internet activist Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan appeared before the Court of Appeal in Riyadh on 04 August 2021, in order to appeal the sentence issued against him of 20 years in prison and a travel ban for a similar period after the completion of his sentence. His sister, human rights defender Areej Al-Sadhan, said on her Twitter account, "He looked exhausted. He denied the absurd allegations. His lawyer made the appeal, which showed that there was no credible evidence for the allegations." The date of 13 September 2021 is the next hearing. Areej Al-Sadhan has also been subjected to threats by electronic flies on several previous occasions.

Loujain Daghestani

On 05 June 2021, physician, social entrepreneur and Internet activist Dr. Loujain Daghestani was released. She had posted her last tweets on 16 March 2021, when she decided to stop tweeting after she was summoned by the General Investigations Directorate on 17 March 2021. She was investigated about old tweets she had posted in 2013 and 2014, which she later deleted, calling for respect for human beings as a supreme value in the homeland and a change to the mentalities that do not support reform.  

In November 2020, electronic flies driven by the Saudi security services launched the following hashtag against her: #Lujain_Daghstani_offends_homeland

One of the conditions of her release was that she delete her Twitter account and this is what she was forced to do as a search for her account currently shows the following message, "This account does not exist."

Rakan Al-Asiri