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Saudi man sentenced to 10 years over tweets about unemployment

Abdullah Jelan is among a group of young Saudis who were forcibly disappeared in spring 2021 after they dissented anonymously on social media
Abdullah Jelan, 30, studied public health in the US on a Saudi scholarship before returning to the kingdom where he hoped to be a health educator (Mena Rights Group)

A Saudi Arabian man who was forcibly disappeared for his tweets has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, plus a 10-year travel ban, the UK-based rights group Alqst and his friend have told Middle East Eye.

Abdullah Jelan, 30, was sentenced by the Specialised Criminal Court over his social media activism which focused mostly on unemployment.

He isn’t the only Saudi Arabian to receive an extreme sentence over social media posts in recent months. But he is the first in a group of young Saudis who were forcibly disappeared in May and June 2021 over their anonymous online activism.

There are at least 14 such "May detainees" whose identities are known. But lawyers and rights groups working on some of their cases have told MEE they are concerned there could be many more, and said on Monday they fear that Jelan's sentencing is only the beginning of similar fates for activists and others now on trial.

"Abdullah Jelan's sentence, unfortunately, does not come as a surprise, and once again illustrates the mounting repression and enduring brutality of the Saudi regime," said Lina Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at Alqst.

'There is no justice in that. No words can describe the feelings that I have right now'

- Friend of Abdullah Jelan

"Cases like this should sound the alarm for anyone dealing with Saudi Arabia's legal system, which without any transparency or due process guarantees, is able to sentence anyone to jail, even for peaceful tweets."

Jelan's friend told MEE that he found it "so silly and so stupid" that "expressing your feelings on social media can lead you to lose 10 years of your life".

"There is no justice in that. No words can describe the feelings that I have right now. I just hope that Abdul goes out as soon as possible," said the friend whose identity is not being shared for his own safety.

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to MEE's request for comment.

Speaking up anonymously

Jelan had planned to become a health educator in the kingdom and studied public health at West Chester University in Pennsylvania on a Saudi scholarship, his friend and rights groups previously told MEE.

But when he returned to the kingdom and applied to work at the health ministry, he was told that his degree wasn’t recognised and spent three years trying to get his qualifications recognised.

These young Saudis spoke up on social media. Then they disappeared
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Meanwhile, he worked as an Uber driver, supporting his family, and also made plans to marry his fiancee whom he had met studying in the US. Still frustrated with his situation, he spoke out on social media anonymously.

On the evening of 12 May 2021, Jelan was taken from his mother’s house in Medina by 20 plainclothes Saudi state security agents who arrived in a six-car convoy, according to Mena Rights Group.

Jelan’s family learned around two months later that he was being held in a prison run by the Saudi secret police in Medina.

Mena Rights Group has said that during interrogations he was subjected on two separate occasions to torture through the use of a rod emitting around 360 volts of electricity.

He was shackled and kept in solitary confinement, and later moved to another secret police-run prison in Dhabhan.

In response to a complaint filed with the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, Saudi authorities said in July 2021 that Jelan was arrested under the 2017 Combatting Terrorism and Financing of Terrorism Act, which has been criticised as overbroad in its definition of terrorism by UN experts.

Fear for the future 

Since August, Saudi Arabian courts have handed down a series of extreme rulings to individuals who have expressed dissent on social media.

They include Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University student and mother of two, and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, a mother of five, who were given 34 years and 45 years, respectively, over tweets critical of the Saudi government.

Last month, 72-year-old Saad Ibrahim Almadi, who is a dual Saudi-American citizen, was sentenced to 16 years over tweets critical of the kingdom. His son has said he was tortured in prison.

Last month, Alqst and Mena Rights Group were among a consortium of NGOs that warned detained activists awaiting trial in the kingdom could face similar sentences.

Ramzi Kaiss, legal and policy officer with Mena Rights Group, told MEE that the organisation is concerned with a recent trend in the kingdom whereby increasingly long sentences are handed down after unfair trials.

"We fear that other Saudis, just like Abdullah, will face a similar fate, simply for peacefully exercising their right to the freedom of expression," Kaiss said.

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