In the latest instance of mounting restrictions on free speech in Saudi Arabia, a court has sentenced Mohammed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi to death for his online activities on the platform X (formerly Twitter) and YouTube. This sentencing follows a series of severe penalties against individuals, including Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral student sentenced to 27 years in prison for online commentary.
This trend of suppressing dissent appears aligned with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s broader strategy to stifle opposition while advancing his international diplomatic and developmental agendas.
Lina Alhathloul, a prominent activist at the London-based advocacy group ALQST, expressed her alarm over the severity of al-Ghamdi’s sentence, emphasizing that the lack of global response to such punitive actions has only emboldened Saudi authorities. She warns of the chilling effect this has on free expression, with even a single tweet potentially proving fatal.
Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, originally set up to address terrorism cases, has increasingly taken on cases against activists. The charges against al-Ghamdi, which led to his death sentence, range from “betraying his religion” to “conspiring against the government.” These charges were primarily based on his online reposting of critical views.
It remains unclear why authorities specifically targeted al-Ghamdi, a retired school teacher from Mecca. However, his brother, Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, is an outspoken critic of the Saudi government residing in the UK. The latter speculates that his brother’s conviction might be a strategy to intimidate him.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has arrested family members to coerce expatriates to return, a tactic known to activists and victims.
The international community, notably human rights organizations, has denounced the ruling. Joey Shea from Human Rights Watch highlighted the gravity of such repression where peaceful online expressions could result in a death sentence.
In 2022, Amnesty International reported Saudi Arabia as one of the top three global executioners. The country executed 196 individuals, the highest number in three decades, including a single-day record execution of 81 people in March.
Significantly, al-Ghamdi’s case marks the first instance of the death penalty being imposed for online activity during this recent crackdown.