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Saudi Arabia arrests more journalists and activists, rights group says

“They are still repressing people, still arresting more human rights defenders," Yahya Assiri, a London-based Saudi dissident, said.
Image: Fouad al-Farhan, center
Saudi popular blogger Fouad al-Farhan, center, with Ahmed al-Omran left and Bandar Raffa during a founding meeting of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Bloggers in 2006.Faiza Saleh Ambah / FTWP file

LONDON — Saudi Arabia has detained at least eight journalists and activists in the last two weeks as it tightens its grip on freedom of expression in the kingdom, according to a rights group and an exiled academic.

London-based group ALQST, which advocates for human rights in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah Alaoudh, a senior fellow at Georgetown University whose father is a popular cleric facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, said at least eight journalists and activists have been arrested.

Alaoudh said the detainees' friends or family members in Saudi Arabia had told him their loved ones had been arrested, while ALQST declined to characterize its sources. NBC News could not confirm the reports.

Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comment.

For some Saudi activists and watchers abroad, the latest wave of arrests was a sign that the international condemnation following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 last year has not forced the kingdom to change its ways.

“There are some countries that say they believe Saudi Arabia has learnt its lesson from international pressure after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Yahya Assiri, a prominent Saudi dissident and a former member of the Royal Saudi Air Force, who runs ALQST from London.

“They are still repressing people, still arresting more human rights defenders," he said.

In October last year, details of Khashoggi's murder prompted widespread revulsion and condemnation. The CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies concluded that the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had ordered his killing.

Since the crown prince assumed power in June 2017, President Donald Trump’s administration has strengthened its alliance with the powerful young royal, who has presented himself as a reformer eager to transform the deeply conservative society.

The crown prince has also presided over sweeping crackdowns on dissent, arresting intellectuals, clerics, women’s rights activists and members of the royal family.

Alaoudh said those arrested in the past two weeks had been active during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. Many of them were still part of “philosophical” book clubs in Saudi Arabia, he added.

Varsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington-based think tank, said reports that those arrested were people who appeared to have become less politically active signaled that “the dragnet continues to be ever widening.”

“It shows a pretty dangerous sign that there may not be any elements within the monarchy holding him back,” she said, referring to the crown prince.

Image: President Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

Notable among those arrested is activist and blogger Fuad al-Farhan, who first started calling for reform while living in the United States, according to Assiri. In 2007, he was arrested in Saudi Arabia and was sentenced in 2014 to five years in prison but did not serve the term because he agreed to stop blogging, he added.

Alaoudh said al-Farhan had demanded the release of all arbitrary detainees in the kingdom during the Arab uprisings of 2011, but that in recent years he had become an entrepreneur and his focus had shifted from politics to business.

Saphora Smith reported from London, Josh Lederman from Washington, D.C.