Save clerics, activists, and other peaceful dissidents from the Saudi government’s execution spree

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

With credible reports that Saudi Arabia will imminently execute three prominent clerics after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the undersigned organizations urge the international community to immediately intervene and pressure the Saudi government to suspend all death sentences. The shameful silence of the international community thus far, especially following the mass execution of 37 defendants in April, has given the kingdom the green light to continue to slaughter its citizens following grossly unfair trials. The international community must break its silence if there is to be any hope of saving the lives of the three clerics- Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari – as well as many other peaceful dissidents and reformers who will likely meet the same fate if urgent action is not taken to halt the executions and hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its appalling human rights record.

Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari were arrested in a security sweep in September 2017, and have faced ill-treatment and solitary confinement in custody. Dozens of vague, overly-broad charges devoid of tangible evidence were brought against the three clerics by the Saudi prosecution, including terrorism, spreading corruption and strife, and links with the Muslim Brotherhood[1] and Qatari government; [2] the death sentence was sought by the Public Prosecution in September 2018. Fear that news of the three clerics’ impending execution is credible is heightened by the 2016 execution of prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, which received no commensurate response from the international community. Nimr’s ‘crime,’ like that of the three clerics, was to peacefully criticize the Saudi authorities.

The kingdom’s apparent preparations to carry out the death sentence against the three clerics is highly alarming for all prisoners of conscience currently crowding Saudi’s prisons, including the 14 bloggers, writers, and human rights defenders arrested in April, all of whom were peacefully demanding reform. Under Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rule, Saudi Arabia has increasingly become a kingdom of fear, offering no safety for reformists, the human rights community,[3] and many others expressing ideas not aligned with those of the hardline, brutally repressive Saudi government. The peaceful expression of an independent opinion is a sufficient cause for imprisonment or execution; numerous human rights defenders, writers, intellectuals, and other peaceful dissidents have endured unfair trials culminating in prison terms and death sentences, with the state media mobilized to smear human rights activists as traitors.

Women[4] rights defenders have been especially targeted by the Saudi government under the crown prince, which falsely brands itself abroad as reformist. Prominent women rights defenders[5] who challenged the male guardianship system and demanded basic rights, including the right to drive, were arrested by the Saudi government, and faced ill treatment, torture, and sexual harassment in prison, according to rights reports.

The international community has thus far shown no political will[6] to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its crimes, the most notorious of which was last year’s assassination of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate. Despite Saudi Arabia’s admission that it committed the crime, and reports that the crown prince gave the order to carry it out, the international community has expended no effort[7] in bringing justice to the killers, who have evidently escaped with impunity. In March, following Khashoggi’s assassination, the undersigned organizations followed with interest the unprecedented rebuke of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council. Yet thus far this criticism has had no impact outside the HRC.

The undersigned organizations reiterate that the international community’s failure to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its abysmal human rights record has only served to embolden the kingdom in perpetuating its cruel policies. We call on the governments that admonished Saudi Arabia’s record at the Human Rights Council to immediately take action to establish an international instrument monitoring human rights violations in the kingdom and guaranteeing accountability for perpetrators, and to pressure Saudi Arabia to unconditionally release and drop all false charges against human rights defenders and peaceful dissidents. Until then, all state governments and human rights organizations and advocates must take urgent action to save the lives of the three clerics, who may be executed in the coming days. If Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari are executed and the Saudi regime once again evades accountability, many human rights defenders and peaceful dissidents and reformers will face the same fate.

Signatory Organizations:

  1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  2. Mwatana for Human Rights (Yemen)
  3. Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Researches
  4. Sudan Human Rights Monitor
  5. Association ADALA (Pour le Droit à un Procès équitable)
  6. Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights
  7. Committee for the Respect of Freedoms and Human Rights in Tunisia
  8. Tunisian Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties
  9. L’Association Tunisienne de Soutien des Minorités
  10. National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists
  11. Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State
  12. Tunis center for press freedom
  13. مؤسسة احمد التليلي من اجل الثقافة الديمقراطية (تونس)
  14. لجنة يقظة من اجل الديمقراطية في تونس- بلجيكا
  15. جمعية العمال المغاربة بفرنسا
  16. جمعية التونسيين بفرنسا
  17. الجمعية الوطنية للشباب، راج الجزائر
  18. جمعية “أكدا” من اجل التغيير والديمقراطية في الجزائر
  19. Coordination Maghrébine des Organisations de Droits Humains
  20. Democratic Transition & Human Rights Support – DAAM –


[1] Designated as a terrorist group by the Saudi government.

[2] Saudi Arabia has been boycotting the Qatari government since 2017.

[3] The human rights community in Saudi Arabia is living in fear of the long arm of the security apparatus and a non-independent judiciary, which lacks minimum fair trial standards. The counterterrorism law of 2017 criminalizes peaceful practices and broadly defines terrorism to allow punitive measures against human rights activists. Saudi Arabia has no standardized penal code, but instead applies Islamic law in its strictest interpretations, which permits judges to issue rulings based on their own particular views and in service of the narrow interests of the regime and its repressive policies. In this context, Saudi Arabia has imprisoned most founders of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights. Prominent activist Waleed Abulkhair is serving a 15-year prison sentence for his peaceful opinions, and many human rights defenders have been imprisoned and banned from travel. As a result, in recent years activists have begun settling abroad, not only in search of safe environment where they can work and defend human rights, but in order to preserve their lives.

[4] Women in Saudi Arabia are subject to intense repression due to conservative social traditions, fueled by hardline clerics who have received state support for decades .Recently, some Saudi young women have begun fleeing for other countries, filing asylum claims citing familial and social oppression in the search for a secure life and their basic rights far from the system of male guardianship.

[5] In 2019, a criminal court issued two rulings temporary releasing 7 of the 11 detained female activists, all of whom are at risk of imprisonment following unfair trials. In another case in 2018, the Public Prosecution sought the death sentence for activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who took part in peaceful protests.

[6] Some international organizations are mirroring the apathetic stance of some Western capitals toward grave human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, disregarding the universal human rights values they have long supported in the past. Meanwhile, Riyadh continues concluding trade deals, knowing very well how to buy the silence of major states. The likelihood that Saudi Arabia will face no consequences for its ongoing crimes is growing greater, given the US’s need for Saudi support in its escalation against Iran or for the so-called  “Deal of the Century.”

[7] . This inaction emboldens the Saudi government to brutally silence any voice critical of Bin Salman’s policies- threat not limited to Saudi citizens but other critics of the kingdom’s policies. Recently, Iyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian activist living Norway and a prominent critic of Bin Salman’s policies, was warned by the US of a Saudi assassination plot against him.

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