The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 10 Saudi judges are charged with treason. They were too ‘lenient.’

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears at the trophy ceremony for the Saudi Cup on Feb. 25. (Ahmed Yosri/Reuters)
3 min

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and prime minister, Mohammed bin Salman, announced plans recently to build an extravagant annex to the capital, Riyadh, to be “the world’s largest modern downtown,” featuring green areas and walking and cycling paths. In the shadow of this supposed vision of the future, however, lies the brutish reality of a Riyadh court that inspires dread.

The Specialized Criminal Court, initially created in the kingdom in 2008 to prosecute terrorism-related cases, is used to punish dissent and carry out purges against perceived enemies of the crown prince. In the latest, 10 judges, six of them former prominent SCC judges, and four former judges of the kingdom’s High Court, stand accused of treason, punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Their “crime”? They weren’t harsh enough in handing out prison sentences.

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Word about the judges’ case has been leaked by sources to the group Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, founded by Jamal Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist, and some friends. Khashoggi was murdered at the hands of a Saudi hit squad in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.

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These judges do not have entirely clean hands. One of them, Abdullah bin Khaled al-Luhaidan, was responsible for the baseless terrorism charge against Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist who led the campaign for women to be able to drive. She was charged with “inciting change to the basic ruling regime” and sentenced to five years and eight months in prison, and released on parole after three years. Now, the judge who pronounced the sentence against Ms. Hathloul faces a possible death sentence for not being tougher. According to DAWN, the judges were coerced to sign confessions that they had been too “lenient” in the cases they presided over. At least nine of the judges were detained last April 11 and have since been held incommunicado, denied legal counsel and family contacts. According to DAWN, the treason charges were leveled in a secret hearing on Feb. 16.

After arresting the judges, the crown prince replaced them with loyalists, according to DAWN. As a result, earlier trials and verdicts of political activists and social media commentators were reviewed, and sentences dramatically increased. One of those who suffered is Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two young boys who had called for Ms. Hathloul’s release in a single tweet. Her sentence was increased from six to 27 years.

Presiding over the case of the 10 judges is Awadh al-Ahmari, an MBS loyalist who previously served as a ruthless investigator for the prosecutor’s office. He was part of a Saudi delegation sent to Istanbul on Oct. 28-31, 2018, after Khashoggi’s murder, purportedly to investigate the killing it had earlier denied had even taken place. When Turkish officials pressed the Saudi delegation for information about Khashoggi’s body, planning of the murder and other details, the Saudis stonewalled, according to a United Nations report. Khashoggi’s body has never been found.

The crown prince talks about flashy modernity but rules with a barbaric cruelty.

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