Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for a prominent cleric accused of using social media to stoke unrest, according to a court document seen by this news agency on Thursday.
Awad al-Qarni was among dozens of prominent clerics and dissidents arrested in September 2017, three months after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became first in line to the throne.
Human rights activists accuse Prince Mohammed of overseeing a crackdown on critics seen as harsh even by the standards of Saudi Arabia, which does not allow political opposition. The prosecution’s filing was shared by Qarni’s son Nasser, who last year fled to the United Kingdom to seek asylum.
Prosecutors accuse Qarni of spreading anti-government messages on Facebook and on Twitter, where he has two million followers.
“He tweets from his Twitter account at every opportunity, using it as a means to express his misguided opinions and direction,” the court document states.
Objectionable posts cited in the document include statements of support for the Muslim Brotherhood, criticism of Saudi judicial decisions and commentary on a diplomatic rift that saw Saudi Arabia lead a years-long boycott of neighbouring Qatar.
The two Gulf countries later mended ties during a summit in January 2021.
The posts are seen as being part of “efforts to destabilise the nation’s foundation, turning society against its rulers, stirring up unrest and showing sympathy for a hostile state (Qatar),” the filing states.
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They also convey “support for the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist organisation against the homeland and its rulers,” the filing added.
Qarni is also accused of “striving to destabilise the social fabric… and stir up public opinion by inciting sedition and division between Muslims and between the ruler and the ruled”.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude exporter, is pursuing an ambitious reform agenda intended to attract foreign investment and tourists while diversifying its oil-dependent economy.
Yet the kingdom still faces lingering reputational damage from the 2018 killing by Saudi agents of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
And it is routinely criticised for harsh court rulings, including decades-long prison sentences handed down last year to two women who tweeted and retweeted posts critical of the government.
Saudi officials have not commented on those cases, and they did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday about the case against Qarni.
The prosecution’s request for the death penalty for Qarni is another example of overreach by “kangaroo courts”, said Abdullah Alaoudh, Gulf research director for Democracy for the Arab World Now, a US-based rights group founded by Khashoggi. Alaoudh’s father, Salman al-Awdah, is another prominent cleric who was arrested around the same time as Qarni.
The cases against the two men stem from “bogus charges relating to their peaceful work, books and tweets”, Alaoudh said.