Saudi prosecutors seek death penalty for academic over social media use

A prominent pro-reform law professor in Saudi Arabia is facing the death penalty for alleged crimes including having a Twitter account and using WhatsApp to share news considered “hostile” to the kingdom, according to court documents seen by the Guardian.

The arrest of Awad Al-Qarni, 65, in September 2017 represented the start of a crackdown against dissent by the then newly named crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Details of the charges brought against Al-Qarni have now been shared with the Guardian by his son Nasser, who last year fled the kingdom and is living in the UK, where he has said he is seeking asylum protection. Public prosecutors have called for the death penalty in the case, but the court has yet to make a formal judgement.

Al-Qarni has been portrayed in Saudi-controlled media as a dangerous preacher, but dissidents have said Al-Qarni was an important and well-regarded intellectual with a strong social media following, including 2m Twitter followers.

Human rights advocates and Saudi dissidents living in exile have warned that authorities in the kingdom are engaged in a new and severe crackdown on individuals who are perceived to be critics of the Saudi government. Last year, Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds PhD student and mother of two, received a 34-year sentence for having a Twitter account and for following and retweeting dissidents and activists. Another woman, Noura al-Qahtani, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for using Twitter.

But the prosecution documents shared by Nasser Al-Qarni show that the use of social media and other communications has been criminalised inside the kingdom since the beginning of Prince Mohammed’s reign.

The Saudi government and state-controlled investors have recently increased their financial stake in US social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, and entertainment companies such as Disney. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi investor, is the second-largest investor in Twitter after Elon Musk’s takeover of the social media platform. The investor was himself detained for 83 days during a so-called anti-corruption purge in 2017. Prince Alwaleed has acknowledged that he was released after he had reached an “understanding” with the kingdom that was “confidential and secret between me and the government”.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, has separately increased its stake in Facebook and Meta, the company that owns Facebook and WhatsApp.

A translation of the charges against Al-Qarni include the law professor’s “admission” that he used a social media account under his own name (@awadalqarni) and used it “at every opportunity … to express his opinions”. The documents also state that he “admitted” participating in a WhatsApp chat, and was accused of participating in videos in which he praised the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Qarni’s apparent use of Telegram, and creation of a Telegram account, was also included in allegations.