Elon Musk, the owner of X, a social media platform, claims to be a free speech absolutist. But he’s silent when Saudi Arabia, a major investor in the app, sentences a man to death for his posts on the very same platform.
A Saudi court has sentenced Mohammed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, a 54-year-old retired teacher, to death solely for his activity on X, formerly known as Twitter, and YouTube. The condemned was critical towards the conservative kingdom over human rights violations.
The Specialized Criminal Court, an institution established to try terrorism cases but recently more often used to persecute activists, has a history of unfair trials resulting in death sentences. This case is no different.
Crackdown on steroids
On X, al-Ghamdi reportedly had nine followers, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. What’s more, his brother Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, a dissident who was pushed into exile in 2018, fears that the sentence was handed down in retaliation against him.
“The procedures that were followed with him suggest that this false ruling aims to spite me personally after failed attempts by the Al-Mabahith (Intelligence) to return me to the country,” the brother of the jailed Saudi wrote on X.
In July, the aforementioned Saudi counterterrorism tribunal condemned al-Ghamdi, using his tweets, retweets, and YouTube activity as evidence. Human Rights Watch says al-Ghamdi was arrested in front of his wife and children in June 2022 and, if the sentence is not commuted, will probably be beheaded.
The number of people executed in Saudi Arabia reached 147 in 2022, and there have been 94 executions so far this year. Saudi authorities executed 81 men on March 12th, 2022, the country’s largest mass execution in years.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, has been pursuing an ambitious reform agenda known as Vision 2030 and wants to turn the Kingdom into a United Arab Emirates-like global tourism and business destination.
However, critics and human rights activists say that bin Salman cannot stand criticism and cracks down on any critical remarks on social media. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident journalist, was killed by agents of the Saudi government in Istanbul, Turkey.
The US Central Intelligence Agency soon concluded in a report that the Saudi crown prince ordered the assassination, the Washington Post reported more than four years ago. Bin Salman claims he wasn’t involved in the killing.
Last year, Saudi Arabia was widely condemned for long prison sentences handed down to two women for social media posts critical of the government.
"Saudi courts are escalating their repression and unveiling publicly their empty promises of reform," Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communication for the rights group ALQST, told CBS News.
"How can the world believe the country is reforming when a citizen is going to have his head cut off over tweets on an anonymous account with less than 10 followers?"
Royal treatment at X?
It’s sadly ironic that Saudi Arabia has sentenced a man over his account activity on X. The platform’s owner Musk has more than once said he was a “free speech absolutist” but is yet to comment the fact that X is used as a hunting ground to imprison and torture people for expressing their opinions.
Perhaps this is not so surprising, though, because Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and his Kingdom Holding Company has for a while now been the second largest investor in X, and has maintained their stake of shares valued at $1.89 billion after Musk took over the company in late 2022.
The Crown Prince bin Salman is bin Talal’s cousin. Last year, two US senators called for a “thorough vetting” of the Twitter sale on national security grounds and specifically named concerns over Saudi financing.
“It is reasonable to examine whether any degree of Saudi influence over Twitter’s operations or access to user data could foreseeably be used to silence government critics and human rights activists, or to further state-sponsored disinformation campaigns,” senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said.
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