Riyadh:Human Rights Watch (HRW) has expressed concern over Saudi Arabia’s continued detention of a top cleric because of his political views, urging the Riyadh regime to “immediately” release him.
Saudi authorities detained top Sunni preacher Salman al-Awda on September 7 last year, and have held him in solitary confinement without trial ever since.
HRW said Wednesday that, according to family members, the 61-year-old cleric had finally been allowed to contact a lawyer for his first ever hearing on September 3.
At the hearing, prosecutors brought 37 charges against Awda, mostly connected to his alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents, according to HRW. They also requested the death penalty.
Saudi Arabia blacklisted the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in March 2014.
HRW condemned the charges as “vague” and said the ongoing crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman against dissidents and anti-regime activists will only hurt Riyadh’s ambitious economic plans.
“At a time when Saudi Arabia’s ambitious economic plans such as the Aramco IPO are stalling out, the crown prince’s prosecutors are investing in threatening clerics and women’s rights activists with execution,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“Unless Saudi Arabia has evidence that al-Awda committed a recognizable crime the authorities should release him immediately.”
Aeda was among the first of scores of people detained by government forces in mid-September 2017, months after MBS rose to power.
The cleric was a prominent member of the Sahwa Movement in the early 1990s, which opposed the decision by Riyadh to let the US military into Saudi Arabia in order to prevent a potential attack by Iraq.
He has been an advocate of greater democracy and social tolerance since 2011.
In January, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for Awda’s release, describing him as “an influential religious figure.”
Court documents viewed by HRW stated that the cleric was accused of expressing “public solidarity with imprisoned dissidents, opposing the Saudi-led isolation of Qatar in mid-2017, and alleged ties to the Qatari government.”
He is also charged with publicly opposing the Saudi regime’s hosting of former Tunisian president Zain al-Abedin Bin Ali, “mocking governmental achievements,” and “offending patriotism and loyalty to the government and the country.”