I was profoundly shocked when, literally at the same time as the Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United FC in October 2021, I learned that Abdulrahman al-Sadhan had been sentenced to 20 years in jail for satirical tweets. Compared to the ten years handed to Raif Badawi for blogging in 2010, it seemed a massively cruel sentence that would stick in local minds, emblematic of the dubious connection between totalitarian regimes and British football.
What I did not know then was that even more drastic sentences would be shortly handed out to Salma al-Shehab (initially 34 years) and Nourah al-Qahtani (45 years) and indeed that sentences of 50 years would follow for others. It now seems to me that Abdulrahman has become somewhat of a forgotten man amongst the continuing storm of ludicrous sentences handed out by the Saudi Specialised Criminal Courts, headed by Awadh al-Ahmari. This is why I have chosen to look at Abdulrahman’s situation in particular, though it should be remembered that as many as 60,000 human rights activists and others – considerably more than enough to fill St James’ Park to capacity – have suffered similar fates.
The basic facts of Abdulrahman’s case are well-known, less so the details. A Saudi national with strong connections to the USA (his mother and sisters are US citizens), he graduated in Business Studies from University in California but decided to do charitable work in Saudi Arabia before continuing his studies in America. In March 2018, he was arrested from his workplace at the Red Crescent Society in Riyadh without a warrant and ‘disappeared’ to a location unbeknown to his family before being charged two years later.
It emerged that his crime was in fact running two twitter accounts in which he lampooned various Saudi officials and conservative clerics, one assumes an Arabic version of the kind of material we can readily find in “Private Eye” magazine. One of the accounts assuming the persona of an online conservative religious cleric was inspired by a character from a famous Saudi comedy show and some of the charges listed against him made it seem like the Saudi authorities did not understand – or wish to understand – the nature of satire.
A series of trials stretching over a year followed a familiar litany. His sister Areej, who has campaigned forcefully for Abdulrahman’s release, has said their family received from the relatives of other prisoners information that he had been tortured, including electric shocks, beatings, flogging, suspension in stress positions, sleep deprivation, death threats, insults, verbal humiliation, solitary confinement and being forced to sign documents while blindfolded. His hand was deliberately broken and his fingers smashed. At one point he was unconscious in intensive care for five days. His overall health has deteriorated and when his family last saw him at his appeal hearing in 2021, he had visible signs of torture.
Throughout the proceedings had the hallmarks of a show trial. Before Abdulrahman’s appeal against conviction was quashed, there was extremely limited contact with his family via two brief phone calls. Some trial sessions were held behind closed doors and his legal representation was prevented or severely hampered. Representatives of the US Embassy were refused permission to attend the court sessions.
Abdulrahman’s sentence also came with a 20 year travel ban which means he will be 77 before he would be able to see his American family again. His Saudi family have not seen him since 2021 and are unsure as to his whereabouts, or even if he is still alive. Areej has said that her activism on his behalf has led to threats that the Saudi authorities will target her family and friends in the country.
“Everyone is in danger, not just the person who is speaking out. That’s why a lot of people and friends and relatives stopped speaking to us. We lost our communication and community because of that. It really affected our social life, instead of a normal happy family life, everyone is living on the edge of worry and scared of what might happen.”Areej al-Sadhan
She has herself received death threats and was stalked and harassed by a probable Saudi agent while attending a Human Rights Conference in Europe.
Lies and the Saudi state
Throughout the trial process, there was a process of disinformation from Saudi sources that was felt to be deliberately designed to frustrate efforts to support Abdulrahman.
After the family unsuccessfully tried to work with the Saudi authorities on his case, Areej al-Sadhan sought help from her elected representative, Nancy Pelosi. Although approaches to the Saudi Embassy in Washington were generally ignored, Pelosi’s office eventually sent her a response from the embassy claiming that Abdulrahman’s legal rights and health would always be guaranteed, and that there would be a right to appeal in the event of a conviction.
However when Pelosi produced statements and tweets, she was denounced on online accounts appearing to be associated with the Saudi government as a supporter of ISIS.
Areej has stated that when complaints were made to the United Nations, Saudi officials lied – denying any abuses, and stating that Abdulrahman got regular calls and visits and that the Saudi Human Rights Commission attended his court hearings.
Reports from other victims’ families had however indicated that the commission does not visit victims to report on the abuses, but to threaten them and force them to sign an agreement to never speak about the abuses again.
Abdulrahman’s father, who attempted to support his son at court with limited success, was once assured that his son would shortly be released. On another occasion, he was asked to wait outside the courtroom until it was ready to hear his submission, only to be told later that the trial had been concluded and sentence passed.
More generally, the London-based organisation ALQST observed in its latest annual report that Saudi Arabia has acceded to the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and a long list of other human rights conventions. While the Saudi authorities had pledged to uphold the standards of these conventions and to integrate their provisions and legal safeguards into national legislation, the respective UN committees have again and again had to reprimand Saudi Arabia for its substantial lack of implementation and failure to meet its obligations as set out in the conventions.
Footnote on The Hamburger Trick
Perhaps the best way to portray the hypocritical way in which the regime in Saudi Arabia operates is through the tale of the Greedy Westerner and the Wily Easterner, also known as ‘The Hamburger Trick’, which goes something like this:
The Greedy Westerner says to the Wily Easterner “I would like you to make me a nice hamburger, please.”
Now the Wily Easterner, who is vegetarian, isn’t too keen on the idea of making a hamburger for the Greedy Westerner, but he decides to play along. “Yes,” he says, “I will make you the best hamburger you have ever seen!”
And, sure enough, before the Greedy Westerner’s very eyes, a fat hamburger bun soon appears and a 12 oz burger of the finest beef is sizzling on the grill and almost ready.
The greedy Westerner’s mouth starts to water as he watches the wily Easterner finish off the burger with all the delicious trimmings; juicy gherkins and fresh salad as well as tasty mayonnaise and cheese and a mustard relish…
… Except that at the very last minute, the Wily Easterner snatches away the burger and hands him over a crumpled roll with just a few bits of dry lettuce left stuck inside.
The moral of this story? Perhaps it should be borne in mind with all those who deal with Saudi Arabia, whether human rights defenders, governments, politicians, businesses or sports organisations and personalities.
Based on information sourced from Amnesty International, The Freedom Initiative, Washington Post, Areej al-Sadhan’s address at Geneva Summit for Human Rights, First Post, UNCHR and ALQST.