The assassination of our colleague Jamal Khashoggi three years ago, carried out on orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was part of a far-reaching campaign to silence critics in Saudi Arabia and beyond. That campaign continues to this day. Here we highlight just a few of the figures who remain in prison or are otherwise unable to live freely inside the kingdom, where secret trials, detention and censorship have created a climate of fear.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan is an aid worker who worked with the Red Crescent in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He also ran an anonymous Twitter account that posted satire about Saudi Arabia’s economy. In March 2018, he was taken from his office by Saudi security forces in plain clothes, allegedly after his identity was leaked.
For nearly two years, al-Sadhan’s family did not know what happened to him. Then, a relative in Riyadh received a call from him, in which al-Sadhan said he was being held at al-Ha’ir prison. His family endured another period of silence, punctuated by disturbing reports from those in contact with other prisoners that al-Sadhan faced torture and mistreatment. This year, in a secret trial, he was sentenced to 20 years and a further 20-year travel ban, which he is appealing.
“My family is exhausted. We and so many others should not have to spend days and years wondering if our beloved brother or son is safe, if he’s in pain, if he’s alive,” his sister Areej wrote in a Post op-ed in May.
Samar and Raif Badawi
The siblings Raif and Samar Badawi are among Saudi Arabia’s most prominent activists. Raif Badawi was a blogger who advocated for secularism and respect for minorities. He was arrested in 2012 on charges including apostasy and “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes publicly in January 2015. (In 2020, Saudi Arabia announced it was abolishing flogging.)
Samar Badawi is a Saudi activist who advocated for women to be able to vote and drive, and challenged the male guardianship system. She was arrested with other defenders of women’s rights in July 2018 — just over a month after Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on female drivers — and charged with “communicating with embassies and entities abroad hostile to Saudi Arabia” and “unlicensed human rights activism.” She had previously been detained for seven months in 2010 on charges of disobeying her father. After nearly three years of detention, she was released from prison in June, but she remains barred from traveling; she has not spoken publicly about her ordeal. Her husband, Waleed Abulkhair — who also served as Raif’s lawyer — is in prison serving a 15-year sentence on spurious charges.
“What’s it like being a Saudi woman? A common question I’ve come to expect from outsiders — even fellow Arabs,” Eman al-Nafjan wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian in 2011. “The restrictiveness of the guardianship system, gender segregation and a persistently sexist culture add up to create an exotic and mysterious lifestyle that is difficult to not only explain but also to comprehend.”
Al-Nafjan, the author of the Saudiwoman’s Weblog, courageously addressed these obstacles in her writing and work. The linguistics professor contributed to news outlets such as CNN and Foreign Policy, and regularly spoke about feminism and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She was arrested in May 2018, a month before Saudi women were legally allowed to drive. After nearly a year in detention, she was temporarily released in March 2019 but continues to face restrictions on her freedom. She was awarded the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award alongside fellow Saudi writer Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi and activist Loujain al-Hathloul.
Salman Aloudah is an Islamic cleric and scholar. He was arrested in 2017, a day after he shared a message with his then-14 million Twitter followers calling for peace between Saudi and Qatari leaders. Though the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar ended in January, Aloudah remains in prison and faces the death penalty on 37 charges, including calling for a change in government, “joining” and “praising” the Muslim Brotherhood, and objecting to the boycott of Qatar.
The 64-year-old faced a secret trial in the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh. Since then, he has seen multiple hearings and sessions delayed and postponed. He was held in Dhahban prison, where his family says he was hospitalized for high blood pressure, and al-Ha’ir prison, where he was reportedly held in solitary confinement.
Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani
Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani is a lawyer and co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), an independent human rights organization that has been disbanded. For its work documenting human rights abuses in the kingdom, he was arrested in 2012 as part of a sweep of activists, and sentenced in 2013 to 10 years in prison and another 10 years under a travel ban. Among his charges was “using the Internet to disseminate opinions, petitions, and statements against the government.”
In 2018, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award with Waleed Abulkhair — Raif Badawi’s lawyer and Samar Badawi’s husband — and Abdullah al-Hamid, a human rights activist described as “Saudi Arabia’s Nelson Mandela.” Al-Hamid died in detention last year, after his family said he was denied medical treatment in prison. Al-Qahtani has launched multiplehunger strikes in protest of prison conditions and tested positive for the coronavirus in al-Ha’ir prison earlier this year.
Omar and Sarah Aljabri
Sarah and Omar Aljabri are children of the former Saudi intelligence chief Saad Aljabri, who fled Saudi Arabia in May 2017 and remains in exile. The siblings have been targeted by authorities seeking to force their father, who was an adviser to former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to return to Saudi Arabia.
In June 2017, while attempting to fly to the United States, Sarah and Omar were banned from leaving Saudi Arabia and had their bank accounts frozen. The next year, they were brought into the prosecutor’s office and interrogated without the presence of legal representatives. For 2½ years, they and their family were intimidated into silence. Then, in March 2020 — after being interrogated and pressured to persuade their father to return just days earlier — their house was raided, and they were disappeared. They have since been charged with money laundering and conspiracy to escape the kingdom unlawfully, and have undergone secret trials without due process. This year, their appeal failed, and lawyers found that their cases disappeared from the court docket on the justice ministry’s database.