Ten judges are facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for being too soft on human rights campaigners and women’s rights activists, it has been claimed.
The men have all been charged with high treason – which is punishable by death – after signing confessions admitting they had been too “lenient” is cases involving state security.
One of the judges, Abdullah bin Khaled al-Luhaidan, allowed the prominent women’s rights campaigner, Loujain al-Hathloul, to walk free two months after she appeared before him in December 2020.
Loujain, who once shared a One World stage with the then Meghan Markle, had two years and ten months of her six year sentence suspended by al-Luhaidan meaning that – in addition to time already served - she was able to walk free in February 2021.
The Saudi authorities had arrested al-Hathloul, 31, in May 2018 along with over a dozen other women’s rights activists in a crackdown ahead of the lifting of the country’s ban on women driving.
During her 1001 days in detention her family claimed she had been tortured and threatened with rape.
A report by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), which campaigns for reform in the Middle East, says Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is replacing these judges with hardline loyalists who are reviewing a number of trials of political activists and twitter commentators.
The newly appointed ones have already begun dramatically increasing sentences on two Saudi women for their use of social media.
Last August Leeds University Phd student Salma al-Shehad had hers increased from eight to 34 years for allegedly helping dissidents seeking to “disrupt public order” by retweeting their posts and publishing “false rumours”.
Salma, 34, whose twitter account has 2700 followers, was arrested while on holiday in Saudi Arabia in 2021 after calling for reforms and release of activists ahead of the trip.
Meanwhile Nourah al-Qahtani, a mother of five in her late 40s, had her sentence increased from 13 to 45 years for using Twitter to “challenge” the country’s leaders.
Of the judges charged with high treason, six are from the Specialised Criminal Court, used to prosecute “terrorism” cases, and four from the High Court, the country’s supreme court.
DAWN claims they have all been denied legal advice and held incommunicado since their arrest in April 2022.
Another judge held, Abdulaziz bin Medawi al-Jaber, is one of the accused despite sentencing a minor and many others to death, including some of those who died in the mass execution of 81 in one day in March 2022.
Abdullah Alaoudh, Gulf Director at DAWN, said: “The shocking charges levelled against these judges, many of whom have issued egregiously abusive sentences against Saudi citizens at the behest of the Crown Prince, demonstrates that no one is safe in Saudi Arabia.
“The prosecution of these judges is emblematic of the Crown Prince’s wider purges within the country and his attempts to make the judiciary subservient solely to his wishes.
“Nothing protects a Saudi citizen’s basic rights to life and freedom, not even blindly obeying the Crown Prince’s dictates or carrying out his dirty work by sentencing his critics to lengthy prison terms.
“By prosecuting these judges, MBS is sending a message to every judge in the country that they have to be as brutal as possible to avoid the fate of their victims.”
Last year the number of people executed by Saudi Arabia was at least 138, which is more than the totals of 2020 and 2021 combined. This was despite the authorities implementing a moratorium on using the death penalty for non-violent crimes in 2021.
DAWN was co-founded by Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist, murdered by a Saudi hit squad in the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
The CIA has claimed the killing of the dissident was “most likely” ordered by MBS, who denies involvement.