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MBS said 'bad laws' led to a death sentence for tweets. They're his laws

Fact check: Though the Saudi crown prince said he was ashamed of the ruling, rights advocates tell MEE that it's part of a trend that made him powerful - and that he could change in an instant
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaking in Jeddah at the GCC-Central Asia Summit in July (AFP)

When Fox News asked Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday about the recent death sentence against a Saudi man over his posts on social media platforms, the crown prince said he was ashamed and blamed "bad laws".

Not so fast, say Saudi lawyers and human rights advocates, who insist that the shock ruling was a direct consequence of the crown prince's rise to power - and one he could easily halt.

"He is able, with one word or the stroke of a pen, in seconds, to change the laws if he wants," Taha al-Hajji, a Saudi lawyer and legal consultant with the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, told Middle East Eye.

Mohammed al-Ghamdi, 54, a retired teacher and brother of a prominent Saudi critic, was convicted in July solely over his activity on YouTube and two accounts on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, which only had 10 followers altogether, court documents cited by Human Rights Watch (HRW) have revealed.

His was the most extreme in a string of decades-long sentences meted out over the past year on convictions linked to social media.

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It shocked veteran Saudi observers. On Wednesday, Mohammed bin Salman claimed he too was displeased by the ruling.

"Shamefully, it's true," the crown prince responded when asked if Ghamdi had indeed been sentenced to death over his social media activity. "It's something I don't like."

"The judiciary system has to follow the laws and I cannot tell the judge [to] do that and ignore the law because that's against the rule of law. But do we have bad laws? Yes. Are we changing that? Yes," he added.

There's one problem with that logic: Ghamdi was sentenced under a counterterrorism law passed in 2017, one of several changes that year that "consolidated an immense amount of power" under Mohammed bin Salman, said Joey Shea, HRW's Saudi Arabia researcher.

That summer Mohammed bin Salman replaced his cousin as crown prince and shifted much of the power and responsibility of state security from the interior ministry to the royal court.

Two new bodies - the Presidency of State Security (SSP) and the Public Prosecution Office (PPO) - were established by royal decrees.

Then the counterterrorism law, criticised for its broad definition of terrorism, was also passed. 

Altogether, rights groups say the 2017 overhaul of the kingdom's security apparatus has powerfully enabled the repression of Saudis who speak out, including those handed extreme sentences in the past year.

"These violations are new under MBS and it’s ridiculous that he is blaming this on the prosecution when he and senior Saudi authorities wield so much power over the prosecution services and the political apparatus more broadly," Shea said, using a common nickname for the prince.

Falah Sayed, human rights officer with MENA Rights Group, said Ghamdi was sentenced on the basis of a legal framework “consistently used to silence dissidents”.

“This legal framework is applied with a wide discretionary power left to judges in handing down death sentences and unfortunately Mr Al-Ghamdi's case is far from being isolated.”

But, she added, the judges appointed to the Specialised Criminal Court, which sentenced Ghamdi, are selected by the Supreme Judicial Council, the majority of whose members are appointed by the king.

“There is no doubt that since its establishment, this court has suffered from undue influence by the executive [i.e. the king], rendering it a tool of repression used to prosecute peaceful critics on trumped-up terrorism charges.”

'The one who makes the laws'

However, several observers pointed to the power wielded by Mohammed bin Salman, who is seen as the de facto leader of the kingdom and whose 87-year-old father is rarely seen in public.

Ghamdi's brother, the renowned UK-based religious scholar Saeed al-Ghamdi, also questioned how the crown prince could feel shame over the sentencing without accepting responsibility.

"Everyone knows that he is the one who makes laws and issues long-term rulings," Ghamdi tweeted hours after the interview aired.

"He is the one who imprisoned the judges and appointed to the judiciary those whose justice and independence are in question."

Fahad Ghuwaudi, the spokesperson for the UK-based human rights organisation Sanad, said there was "a clear contradiction" in the crown prince's comments.

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"He declares his embarrassment of the laws that led to this ruling and says that these laws must change.

"At the same time, he claims that he does not interfere in the jurisdiction of the judiciary," Ghuwaudi said.

"He is the one who makes the laws, issues the rulings, and enforces them.

"Unfortunately, the judiciary is being confiscated and politicised with distinction, and arrests are continuing for the most trivial reasons."

Hajji said that the Saudi crown prince had made it clear in the very same interview that he was all-powerful.

"When he wants to accomplish something with his will and desire, he will accomplish it very quickly, as he spoke in the interview about the speed of achieving the goals planned for Vision 2030," he said.

"But he wants to use this iron fist, taking advantage of the laws and judges to silence everyone."

Asked by Fox News reporter Bret Baier if "that guy was going to be killed", the crown prince said he hoped in the next phase of Ghamdi's trial, a judge with more experience "might look at it totally different".

Shea said she believed it is significant that the crown prince felt compelled to defend the ruling and she hoped it would provide Ghamdi with a degree of protection, but whether he will be spared from his death sentence remains to be seen 

"Right now, the case is in the media spotlight, but when it fades in a few months or a year, who knows what might happen," she said.

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