Amnesty International 'gravely concerned' prominent cleric will be executed for peaceful activism

Amnesty International 'gravely concerned' prominent cleric will be executed for peaceful activism
Reformist cleric Salman al-Awdah may face the death penalty in what Amnesty is calling a ‘sham trial’ after he campaigned for a more inclusive Saudi society.
3 min read
26 July, 2019
Amnesty say terrorism charges levelled against al-Awdah are politically motivated [Twitter]
Ahead of the trial of prominent cleric Salman al-Awdah in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, rights group Amnesty International has made pressing calls for his release, fearing he may soon be executed.

The reformist cleric was arrested on terrorism charges in a sweeping crackdown in September 2017, after he posted a tweet calling for "harmony between people", which Saudi authorities claim was a call for reconciliation with neighbouring Qatar.

Awdah's trial is set to take place in the anti-terror court, known as Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), where a host of reformist activists have been tried under dubious and wide-ranging new 'anti-terror' laws.

The Saudi Public Prosecutor has already said he will seek the death penalty for the 61-year-old scholar, however, his sentence will likely be officially confirmed at the trial.

"We are gravely concerned that Sheikh Salman al-Awda could be sentenced to death and executed," said Amnesty's Middle East Research Director Lynn Maalouf in a statement on Friday.

"Since his arrest almost two years ago, Sheikh al-Awda has gone through a terrible ordeal including prolonged pre-trial detention, months of solitary confinement, incommunicado detention, and other ill-treatment - all flagrant violations to his right to a fair trial."

Maalouf accused the Saudi authorities of levelling accusations of terrorism on peaceful activists in order to quash dissent.

"This trial, as well as those of other activists, including the 37 men who were executed last April, are clearly politically-motivated and meant to silence independent voices in the country," she said.

Maalouf said Awdah's campaigning for a more inclusive society has got him punished, in the same way women's rights activists have also been cracked down on.

"What gains are the authorities hoping to achieve by treating their own citizens this way?" Maalouf said.

"Instead of moving ahead with this sham trial, they must immediately and unconditionally release Sheikh al-Awda and drop all charges against him," her statement concluded, reiterating Amnesty's staunch opposition to the death penalty.

Read more: Fate of Saudi religious scholars on death row

Awdah was arrested without a warrant in September 2017, and detained incommunicado and in solitary confinement for the first five months of his imprisonment. He was barred access to his family and a lawyer, except for one brief phone call a month after his arrest, according to Amnesty. 

Dire prison conditions led him to be hospitalised in January 2018, however, he was only allowed to call his family a month later. 

Awdah's case attracted international attention in 2018 when Saudi Arabia's Public Prosecution levelled 37 charges against him, including "not praying enough to the ruler" and receiving text messages that "stirred discord in the region".

Awdah's son told The New Arab in 2018 his father has been active as a religious scholar and thinker, delivering hundreds of lectures and writing hundreds of articles on issues surrounding Sharia, Islamic law, however, at the same time, "embracing modernity and democratic rhetoric". 

In April 2019, Saudi authorities executed 37 citizens who had been convicted of "terrorism". Fourteen of those executed had taken part in anti-government protests in the restive Shia-majority Eastern Province.