MESA Statement on the mass execution and continuing suppression of free speech in Saudi Arabia

The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association deplores the most recent mass execution of 37 detainees in Saudi Arabia on 23 April 2019. It has noted with deep concern that among those executed were an academic and at least one student.  Mohammed Abd al-Ghani al-Attiyah was Dean of the English Department at Jeddah University when he was one of 32 men arrested in 2013 and accused of “high treason” for allegedly spying for Iran as well as ‘supporting demonstrations’ and – in several cases – “distorting the reputation of the Kingdom” and attempting to “spread the Shia confession” in Saudi Arabia. The ‘Iran case’ accounted for eleven of the men beheaded in this latest mass execution in Saudi Arabia – the second this year after the execution of 47 people on 2 January 2016 – including al-Attiyah, a respected Shia scholar who called for dialogue between Shia and Sunnis in the Kingdom.

Other detainees executed on 23 April belonged to the ‘Qatif 24’ group of prisoners arrested in 2012 and convicted in the Specialized Criminal Court of taking part in political demonstrations and carrying out armed attacks on security forces, which their families deny. Among this group was Mujtaba al-Sweikat, who was 17 when he was arrested at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam in December 2012 en route to the United States where he planned to visit colleges and enroll in a preparatory English-language course prior to beginning a course in finance. A statement by faculty and administrators at Western Michigan University subsequently confirmed that al-Sweikat was a prospective student who was admitted to the university but prevented from enrolling by his arrest. In fact, he was on his way for a campus visit when he was detained and convicted of various charges, including “active disobedience against the king,” on the basis of a confession obtained after he was beaten, sleep deprived, stubbed with burnt cigarettes, and held in solitary confinement.

We are greatly concerned by the reports of mistreatment and lack of due process or access to legal representation as the cases of al-Attiyah, al-Sweikat, and the other detainees in the ‘Iran case’ and the ‘Qatif 24’ progressed through the Saudi judicial system. Our concern is magnified by the persistent and, we feel, credible allegations of similar mistreatment and denial of due process, including the recurring calls by the Saudi Public Prosecution for the death penalty, in the cases of prominent scholars of Islam, among them, Sheikh Salman Al-Ouda, Sheikh Awad Al-Qarni and Dr. Ali Al-Omari.

MESA’s position

MESA supports the right of students and scholars everywhere to conduct research and voice opinions without fear of political or any other form of retribution should their work or point of view not align with government positions. We have observed with dismay the lowering of the threshold for legitimate criticism and difference of opinion in Saudi Arabia. We are alarmed by the repeated, and weakly founded charges of treason, spying, terrorism, and the like, leveled against Saudi citizens exercising their rights to freedom of expression.  

It is our concern that the increasingly polarized and ‘zero-sum’ atmosphere has greatly undermined the prospects for free and fair inquiry and expression of opinion, and puts at great risk of harm all those who have sought to legitimately question or challenge the narrative and the actions of the royal family and the Saudi government. We call upon the authorities in Saudi Arabia to immediately release all prisoners of conscience, end the use of the death penalty for non-violent crimes, and take measurable actions to protect the right to free speech and freedom of expression.

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