Saudi Arabia will execute three prominent scholars who are being held on multiple charges of “terrorism” shortly after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
One of the men was arrested in September last year shortly after he tweeted a prayer for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar amid the neighbours’ diplomatic crisis.
All three scholars – cleric Sheikh Salman al-Odah, author Awad al-Qarni and broadcaster Ali al-Omari – have a massive presence online, with al-Odah’s Twitter account having more than 13million followers.
Saudi Arabia, Britain’s ally in the Middle East, is one of the world’s most prolific executioners behind only China and Iran, according to Amnesty International.
In April, Riyadh executed 37 nationals who were convicted on “terrorism” charges, including a young man who was convicted of a crime he allegedly committed when he was under 18.
All 37 were beheaded, and one was crucified and then put on public display.
At least 105 people – 44 of them are foreign nationals – have been executed by Saudi Arabia in 2019, said the human rights group Reprieve.
The oil-rich kingdom carried out 149 executions in 2018.
Al-Odah, al-Qarni and al-Omari – described as moderate Saudi Sunni scholars – will now be sentenced to death and executed shortly after Ramadan concludes next month.
There has been no comment from Saudi authorities as yet.
Cleric al-Odah, or al-Awdah, is known for comparatively progressive views on Sharia and homosexuality. He has been described by the UN as a “reformist”.
In a tweet shortly before his arrest, he appeared to reference Riyadh’s blockade on Qatar, writing: “May God harmonise between their hearts for the good of their people.”
Al-Qarni is a preacher, academic and author, and Al-Omari is a broadcaster with a TV station called “For Youth”.
All three were arrested in September 2017 amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on perceived dissidents, and are awaiting trial in Riyadh.
A Saudi government source told the Middle East Eye: “They will not wait to execute these men once the death sentence has been passed.”
The arrests have been condemned by the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Dana Ahmed. Amnesty International’s Gulf Researcher, said: “The Saudi Public Prosecution’s recurring calls for the death penalty in the case of a number of individuals being held for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression – including Sheikh Salman al-Awda – raises real alarms for the fate of detained activists and religious clerics in the country.
“We’re calling on the Saudi Arabian authorities to immediately release those detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and to drop any charges against them.”
Another source said the execution of 37 Saudis in April – mostly Shia activists – on “terrorism” changes was used as a “trial balloon” to see how strongly the world reacted.
The source added: “When they found out there was very little international reaction, particularly at the level of governments and heads of state, they decided to proceed with their plan to execute figures who were prominent.”
The timing has been dictated by escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia’s ally US and its rival Iran.
The first source said: “They (Saudi Arabia) are encouraged to do it, especially with the tension in the Gulf at the moment.
“Washington wants to please the Saudis at the moment.
“The (Saudi) government calculates that this enables them to get away with this.”
Saudi critic Ali al-Ahmad, head of the US-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said the executions would be a “crime to terrorise the Saudi citizens into submission”.
He told Al-Jazeera: “The Saudi court system is more or less a kangaroo court system.”
Yahya Assiri, founder the London-based Saudi human rights organisation ALQST, claimed the Middle East Eye report was not true.
He tweeted: “Nothing is beyond the authorities who are oppressive, brutal and ignorant, but also no one has been convicted or executed… This news is harmful to the victim and the human rights situation and our work.”
According to death penalty opponent Amnesty International, most known executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq in 2018.