HRW urges overturn of prison sentences against 12 football fans over 'Shia chant'

HRW urges overturn of prison sentences against 12 football fans over 'Shia chant'
Saudi court sentences 12 football fans to prison for chanting a Shia religious chant during a match.
3 min read
31 March, 2024
Saudi authorities should immediately quash the verdict, which was based solely on the peaceful expression of exuberant football fans, HRW urged [Getty]

A Saudi court has sentenced 12 football fans to imprisonment ranging from six months to one year after they peacefully chanted during a January football match, according to a Human Rights Watch statement on Thursday.

Saudi authorities should immediately quash the verdict, which was based solely on the peaceful expression of exuberant football fans, the US-based rights watchdog said in its statement, highlighting that Saudi Arabia was the sole bidder to host the 2034 men’s World Cup.

"Jailing football fans for chants at a match is just one more reason that FIFA’s rigging of the 2034 World Cup bidding process to allow Saudi Arabia to be the sole bidder is not just embarrassing, but dangerous," said Joey Shea, Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"How can football fans feel safe in Saudi Arabia if they can be so easily sentenced to prison for nothing more than chants the government doesn’t like?"

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Saudi police summoned and arrested the fans after a video of them chanting a Shia religious song during a match was posted and spread on social media.

The Saudi Criminal Court in Dammam sentenced two fans to one year in prison with a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals (about US$2,666) and the others to a year in prison, with six months suspended, and fines of 5,000 Saudi Riyals (about $1,333).

On 24 January, during a football match between Al Safa Club and Al Bukiryah Club in the country’s Eastern Province, where Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia community is concentrated, a group of Al Safa football fans were filmed peacefully singing a Shia religious song celebrating the birth of Imam Ali, who is considered by Shia Muslims to be the first Imam.

Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslim minority have long suffered systemic discrimination, government hate speech, and violence from the government.

Qatif police summoned and released more than 150 fans for questioning in the days after the match, according to HRW, citing a source familiar with the case.

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They detained 12 people, initially holding them in Qatif Prison, and later in Dammam General Prison, the source said.

In court documents viewed by Human Rights Watch, including the list of charges, the police investigation ended with a request for indictment of the defendants under article 6 of Saudi Arabia’s notorious 2007 cybercrime law.

The charge requested for two of the defendants was "sending what can undermine public order using the internet and electronic devices".

Another charge, requested for all 12, was "undermining public order through the spirit of sectarian intolerance by passing sectarian content in places of public gathering and inciting social strife".

Article 6 of the cybercrime law provides for penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 3 million Saudi Riyals (about $800,000).

The Saudi government has spent billions of dollars to host major sporting events as an apparently deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator, and its investments in football are astronomical.

On 31 October, Saudi Arabia became the "sole bidder" to host the 2034 men’s World Cup, when Australia, the only country with a potential competing bid, dropped out.

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FIFA, the international governing body for football, will certify the World Cup award at meeting in 2024, but there little doubt of the outcome with only one candidate.

Saudi Arabia has recently hosted the men’s Club World Cup, the Spanish football Super Cup, and the Italian equivalent. 

HRW has long documented that some Saudi state clerics and institutions incite hatred and discrimination against the country’s Shia minority.

"Any sports institution, musician, or global entertainer needs to ask themselves a serious question before they perform in Saudi Arabia," Shea said.

"They should ask themselves whether their own fans might be arrested if they chant something the government doesn’t like."