Public prosecutors in Saudi Arabia are seeking the death penalty against prominent Muslim scholar Salman al-Awdah, local media, activists and his family members have said.
Awdah, who UN experts have described as a “reformist,” was imprisoned a year ago, shortly after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a crackdown on dissent and imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the kingdom’s Gulf neighbour, Qatar.
Awdah, who has 14 million followers on Twitter, posted a tweet on September 9, saying: “May God harmonise between their hearts for the good of their people” – an apparent call for reconciliation between the Gulf countries.
Local daily Okaz reported that the public prosecution, which represents the Saudi government, had levelled 37 counts against Awdah and called for the death penalty.
According to London-based Saudi rights group ALQST and other activists, some of the charges included incitement against the ruler and spreading discord.
Awdah’s son, Abdullah, told the Reuters news agency that the accusations against his father included critical tweets and establishing an organisation which worked to defend the honour of the Prophet Muhammad.
Amnesty International’s Saudi Arabia campaigner Dana Ahmed called the reports “a disturbing trend in the Kingdom [that] sends a horrifying message that peaceful dissent and expression may be met with the death penalty”.
Crackdown on dissent
The ruling Al-Saud family has long regarded Islamist groups as the biggest internal threat to its rule.
In the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Sahwa (Awakening) movement demanded political reforms that posed a challenge to the ruling family.
Awdah, a Sahwa leader, was imprisoned from 1994-99 for agitating for political change, an act which would earn him praise from Saudi-born late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In 2011, Awdah called for elections and separation of powers, demands considered dangerous provocations in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where public protests and political parties are banned, has witnessed a massive crackdown on dissent, with dozens of religious leaders, intellectuals and women’s rights activists arrested in the past year.
Among those arrested were prominent Islamic preachers Awad al-Qarni, Farhan al-Malki, Mostafa Hassan and Safar al-Hawali.
Al-Hawali, 68, was detained after he published a 3,000-page book attacking bin Salman and the ruling family over their ties to Israel, calling it a “betrayal”.
Earlier this year, bin Salman softened the kingdom’s stance on Israel, telling the US-based Atlantic magazine that Israelis “have the right to their own land” and “there are a lot of interests we [Saudi Arabia] share with Israel”.
Last month, authorities recommended the death penalty for five human rights activists from the kingdom’s Eastern Province, including Israa al-Ghomgham, the first woman to possibly face that punishment for rights-related work.