Posted on May 2021

New Activist Crackdown After Biden Let’s MBS off the Hook – new analysis

New analysis, published in a report from Grant Liberty, reveals the incredible $1.5bn scale of the Saudi sports-washing programme as the regime seeks to use the glamour of elite sport to obscure its record of human rights abuse, state-sponsored murder, torture, and the continued bombing campaign in Yemen.

New analysis published by Grant Liberty reveals a growing crackdown on political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, following the Biden administration’s refusal to impose sanctions on Mohammed Bin Salman or his immediate circle in the light of the publication of the State Department’s Khashoggi report at the end of February.

The data comes just days before Abdulrahman al-Sadhan’s appeal period comes to end on May 5th, following his 20 year sentence and 20 year travel ban for the ‘crime’ of running a satirical twitter account. The sentence was handed down just 5 weeks after the Biden administration backed away from punitive action. Abdulrahman had been rumoured to be days away from release before the apparent change of heart. His punishment is in stark contrast the to release (though not freedom) of Loujain al-Hathloul, who was given a lighter sentence in a move widely interpreted as an overture to the Biden regime in January.

News from the Saudi legal system can be notoriously slow, but Grant Liberty has noted at least 8 individuals suffering stiff sentences in April alone – twice as many as the first three months of the year combined – an apparent crackdown on political prisoners in the weeks since Biden’s government failed to target MBS on February 26. They are:

  1. Abdul Rahman Al-Sadhan: Humanitarian aid worker, sentencedin April 2021 to 20 years in prison followed by 20 years of travel ban for allegedly using a parody twitter account to criticize the government’s repression.
  2. Mohamed Al-Otaibi: Journalist, human and women rights activist, was previously (January 2018) sentenced to 14 years in prison followed by 14 years of travel ban for charges related to activism. He was resentencedto 17 years of prison instead of 14 years, in April.
  3. Khaled Al-Mahoush: Writer and Journalist sentencedto 10 years in prison followed by 10 years of travel ban in April.
  4. Yasser Al-Ayyaf:Human rights activist, sentenced to 2 years in prison for contacting foreign media in April.
  5.  Muhammad Musa Al-Sharif: Preacher and a member of the scientific committee of the World Organization for the Holy Quran, and a pilot for Saudi Airlines. Sentenced to 5 years in prison 17 April
  6. Mohammed Al-Rabiah:Human and Women’s rights activist. Was arrested on 15 May 2018 for tweets supporting Saudi Women’s rights. He was sentenced to 6 years of prison on 20 April.
  7. Abdulaziz Al-Odah:Son of famous scholar Salman Al-Odah (who is also in prison). He was arrested in September 2019 for social media use, sentenced to 5 years in prison (with 2 years and a half suspended) on 24 April.
  8. Khaled Al-Omair:Human rights activist. Arrested on July 2018 for tweets calling for reforms in KSA. Was sentenced to 7 years in prison on 25 April 2021.

Sentenced between January and March were:

Mohamad Al-Bishr:

Osama Al-Sahli:

Muhammad Al-Hudaif:

Israa Al-Ghomgham:

Publishing the data, Grant Liberty’s Lucy Rae said,

“There is no question that the Saudi regime is highly sensitive to the US Presidency. At the start of this year there were signs that the Biden administration could push the authorities into releasing prisoners of conscience as the price for doing business. But in the light of the President’s failure to impose sanctions on MBS or his immediate circle following the damning Khashoggi report, the Crown Prince has been let off the leash. 

“In the weeks since that decision, we have seen a significant crackdown on human rights activists. At least 8 activists have been sentenced to outrageous prison sentences for as little as a writing a satirical tweet in April alone. 

“The sad reality is that we are missing a golden opportunity to force change – and secure the freedom of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. Public pressure works. In pursuing its 2030 Vision Saudi Arabia is more reliant on improving its public image than ever before. The international community must demonstrate that the only way the Kingdom can improve its standing is through genuine reform. That means we need the tough action candidate Biden talked about, not the weakness President Biden has so far show.”

Areej al-Sadhan, brother of Abdulrahman al Sadhan said,

“My brother’s sentencing is based on nothing but running a satirical twitter account. For that ‘crime’ he has been sentenced to 20 years in prison followed by 20 years travel ban. Today he should be in the prime of his life but after three years of enforced disappearance, torture and solitary confinement his youth and health are being stolen from him, and he is being stolen from our lives. 20 years imprisonment followed by 20 years travel ban, this is a life sentence for no crime, a grave injustice! That means my parents will be deprived from seeing their son for life!”

“With his appeal running till May 5 this is the most important week of my brother’s life. The international community must come together and demand his release. If Western governments truly believe in human rights it is time for them to stand up for decent peaceful humanitarians in Saudi Arabia like my brother.”

The new crackdown comes as Saudi Arabia continues to pursue its Vision 2030, the diversification of its economy, and with it an unprecedented global PR campaign. Yet behind the sports washing and polished ad campaigns KSA continues to persecute those who have called for change – even after the policy shifts they have called for come about.


This week, Saud Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, met with the Qatari Emir in the latest sign of a normalisation in relations between the Gulf neighbours. However, Grant Liberty analysis reveals more than 20 prisoners of conscience remain in prison for activity related to Qatar well after an end to the blockade. They include:

  • Salman Al-Odah– the popular cleric who now faces the death penalty in part because of oblique references he made in tweets calling for the Saudi authorities to end its stand off with Qatar
  • Ali Al-Omari– media personality also potentially facing the death penalty, arrested in part for his refusal to join public attacks on Qatar
  • Essam al-Zamel– an economist, writer and friend of Jamal Khashoggi arrested for communicating with a Qatari during the boycott

Those in prison have suffered a range of human rights abuses including:

Abuse Count of Prisoner
Arbitrary arrest/ detention 22
Denied contact with family 11
Denied access to a lawyer 13
Torture and ill-treatment 4
Enforced disappearance 2
Observers denied access to court hearings 2
Solitary confinement 9


Although Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from prison she is not free. She remains on probation, unable to express herself freely and under a travel ban. She is not free – and she is not alone.

Years after the repeal of the women’s driving ban, women’s rights activists remain in prison. Of those arrested alongside Loujain al-Hathloul, at least 3 remain in prison:

  • Mayaa al-Zahrani– arrested for tweeting in support of women’s rights activists
  • Nassima al-Sadah– a leader of the 2012 Women2Drive campaign, and putative municipal elections candidate

·      Samar Badawi – award winning women’s rights activist who has campaigned against everything from the male guardianship law to the driving ban


Notes to Editors

  • The US State Department published its report into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on February 26 2021. The report found Khashoggi’s murderers were acting on behalf ot he Saudi Government 

  • In spite of that finding the Biden administration failed to impose sanctions on Mohammed Bin Salman or his immediate circle of advisers.

  • In the weeks since that decision, news has emerged of a renewed crackdown on prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia. At least 10 have received stiff sentences in just 5 weeks:
  1. Abdul Rahman Al-Sadhan:
  2. Mohamed Al-Otaibi:السعودية-تشديد-الحكم-على-العتيبي-وبد/
  3. Khaled Al-Mahoush:
  4. Yasser Al-Ayyaf:
  5.   Muhammad Musa Al-Sharif:
  6. Mohammed Al-Rabiah:
  7. Abdulaziz Al-Odah:
  8. Khaled Al-Omair:
  • 20 Prisoners of conscience remain in prison relating to their refusal to support the blockade against Qatar, months after diplomatic relations have been restored. They are:
Prisoner name English Prisoner Group Status Overview Link to Qatar
Abdul mohsen Al-Ahmad Academic In Prison Senior specialist in anaesthesia treatment at King Fahd Medical City in Riyadh. Islamic preacher, lecturer, and writer with published booked and large following on social media. He was charged with refusing to attack Qatar and disobeying the ruler.
Adel Banaima Academic In Prison Dean of the Institute for Teaching Arabic, Professor and Member of the Faculty of Umm Al-Qura University, and a Poet, writer and popular Islamic preacher. In March 2019, he was named by The Guardian as one of several journalists tortured in detention. He was also the editor of the monthly cultural magazine and an influential presenter on several TV and radio programs Charges related to breaking media laws of using platforms and channels belonging to the Saudi authorities for communicating with Qatari listeners and audiences and violating the ruler’s orders of boycotting – Basically took calls on shows from listeners in Qatar and responded to them on social media.
Khaled al-Mahoush Academic In Prison Ex-Municipality committee member and freelance writer, columnist, and lecturer. influential media personality and initiator of numerous charity organisations. Spoke out about community issues and corruption in KSA. His refusal to join the media campaign against Qatar.
Mohammed Abdul Aziz Al-Khudairi Academic In Prison A preacher and writer. Chairman of the Institutes for Consulting Centre, and Assistant Professor at King Saud University, Riyadh. Has published many books on Islam and popular guest on Islamic TV shows. Has over half a million followers on Twitter. His rejection of royal orders to defame the State of Qatar. The Public Prosecution charged him with breaking out of the ruler, giving a Friday sermon in the State of Qatar
Mohammed al Barrak Academic In Prison Influential (300K followers) Professor of Postgraduate Studies at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah.

A popular preacher and religious figure.

His rejection of directives from the royal court to attack Qatar.

Showing solidarity with those arrested on 12 September 2017 and calling for reconciliation with Qatar.

Yousef al-Ahmad Academic In Prison Assistant professor at Al-Imam University in Riyadh. Was previously arrested and sentenced to 5 years for speaking out against arresting women protesting in front of the ministry of interior, but was then shortly released by a Royal Pardon. Al-Ahmad was accused of traveling to Qatar to attend a conference and meet officials there without official permission from the Kingdom’s government, and his defence of Qatar and its ruler, after the boycott was announced. Tried in secret courts and charged with issuing dubious fatwas among other accusations. Sentenced on 31 December 2020 to 4 years in prison, followed by 4 years of travel ban.
Rabee Hafez Artist In Prison Saudi music composer and singer The Saudi authorities claim that he indicated in a tweet that he supports Qatar and is against the blockade. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison on 10 September 2020.
Mohamed al-Otaibi Human Rights Activist In Prison He has been forced into multiple Hunger-strikes since his arrest. He demands a proper medical care for his high blood pressure and better treatment and living conditions. Al-Otaibi was arrested in Hamad International Airport in Qatar while he was on his way to Norway, then deported to Saudi.
On 14 October 2019 charges sheets were handed to Al-Otaibi included ” going to Qatar” and ” interfering in public affairs”.
Sentenced to 14 years in prison followed by 14 years of travel ban.
Yousuf al-Mulhem Human Rights Activist In Prison Activist and Satirist known for his sarcastic tweets. Has 171k followers on twitter.

He wasn’t particularly involved in politics.

Was arrested after a tweet in which he wished for peace after the news of conflict between the Saudi Crown Prince and Qatari Emir
Abdul rahman Farhanah Journalist In Prison Farhana covered political and religious issues that have become increasingly sensitive in Saudi Arabia. He is known for his support of the Palestinian resistance. He wrote for Al-Jazeera’s website; after the Saudi authorities banned the Qatari broadcaster in the kingdom..
Ahmad al-Sawian Journalist In Prison Chief editor of Albayan magazine and the president of Islamic Press Association. Arrested for his links to Qatar.

The Specialised Criminal Court sentenced him to three years in jail in September 2020 on charges related to his freedom of expression.

Ali Abu al-Hassan Journalist In Prison Islamic cleric and preacher who started as a   teacher before his media appearances and eventually hosted his own Islamic shows and publishing Islamic books focusing on spirituality. He was asked to join the media war against Qatar   but refused
Ali al-Omari Journalist Facing Death Penalty One of the most popular Islamic personalities in the Arab world. Journalist, TV channel director and broadcast host. Over 30 charges but included in them was “espionage activities” and “working for foreign agencies against the security, interests, way of life, resources and communal peace of the kingdom with the aim of stirring up dissent and damaging the fabric of society.” Related to Qatar – in addition to the   usual “Disobeying the ruler” over his refusal to attack Qatar.

In September 2018, he was reportedly sentenced to death.

Essam al-Zamel Journalist In Prison Ex-Aramco economist, Blogger , Business person   with over 800k followers – Expressed his support for human rights and liberties.   Known for criticizing MBS economic vision. His official charge sheet accuses him of “Communicating with a Qatari figure after the Doha boycott”. among other charges.

Was sentenced to 15 years in prison on 4 October 2020.

Mohammed al-Sadiq Journalist In Prison One of several journalists detained in April 2019, Mohammed al-Sadiq wrote about politics, economics, and sectarianism.

He is famous for his support of women rights in KSA.

No official charges but he is the second person to be arrested who wrote for Qatari-funded, UK-based outlet Al-Arabi al-Jadeed (The new Arab).
Sami al-Thubaiti Journalist In Prison Young journalist from Mecca He wrote for Alrasd newspaper, and showed support for reconciliation between KSA and Qatar on Social Media. Believed to be arrested because of his tweet “The disagreement between the brothers has no victor everyone is a loser”. Referring to the Saudi / Qatar conflict
Ali Badahdah Religious Figures In Prison Professor of Hadith and teaching member at King Abdul Aziz University, preacher and Islamic thinker, founding member of a large number of Islamic societies and charities with a large social media following. His refusal to attack the Qatari regime.

The Specialised Criminal Court sentenced him to 6 years in prison on 14 October 2020. Official charges were not legally declared.

Ibrahim al-Harthi Religious Figures In Prison Islamic cleric known for his controversial sermon against racism and unconscious bias in islamic teaching Believed to have been arrested for his refusal to attack the Qatari state on his social media accounts. The Specialised Criminal Court sentenced him to 5 years in prison on 28 August 2020.
Mohammed Abdullah AlHabdan Religious Figures In Prison Teacher and professor of jurisprudence, and the imam of the Al-Ezz Bin Abdul Salam Mosque in Riyadh. Was arrested following his refusal to attack the Qatari regime.

He was charged with several charges, including giving lectures outside Saudi Arabia without permission from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs

Salman al-Odah Religious Figures Facing Death Penalty An iconic religious reformer and one of Saudi   Arabia’s leading Islamic thinkers Security officers made clear that the reason for his arrest was a Twitter post in which he had welcomed a phone conversation between the Emir of Qatar and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia as a step towards resolving the current Gulf crisis. In it he said: “Praise the Lord… O God, soften their hearts toward each other for the good of their peoples.”

He is reportedly facing death penalty, and trial is still ongoing.

Walid al-Huwairini Religious Figures In Prison Islamic Scholar, Academic, Researcher and Media personality. Arrested for not participating in the campaign against Qatar, and not supporting Crown Prince “Mohammed bin Salman” in his directions.
  • Years after the repeal of the driving ban, women’s rights activists continue to be denied their freedom. Loujain al-Hathloul is not free, she remains under a travel ban, unable to express herself freely and on probation, and at least three women’s rights activists remain in priosn. 
  1. Mayaa al-Zahrani– arrested for tweeting in support of women’s rights activists
  2. Nassima al-Sadah– a leader of the 2012 Women2Drive campaign, and putative municipal elections candidate. As above, her sentence was confirmed following Biden’s failure to impose sanctions on MBS
  3. Samar Badawi– award winning women’s rights activist who has campaigned against everything from the male guardianship law to the driving ban

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!


‘Weak’ US let Saudis jail more dissidents, says rights group


Saudi Arabia cracking down on online dissent with surge of detentions in April