Human Rights Watch has called on Saudi authorities to immediately release prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, as a crackdown led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against Muslim preachers, members of the press and intellectuals widens in the conservative oil-rich kingdom.
“Stifling peaceful dissent with outrageous sentences has shown the Saudi government’s lack of commitment to serious political and civil reform,” HRW's Middle East deputy director, Michael Page, said.
He added, “A serious reform campaign, no matter how Saudi-funded public relations propagandists spin it, doesn’t entail locking up human rights defenders for 15 years for courageously speaking up.”
In July 2014, Saudi Arabia's so-called Specialized Criminal Court convicted Abu al-Khair for his comments to media outlets and tweets criticizing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
The court also issued a 15-year travel ban on him and imposed a fine of 200,000 Saudi riyals (US$53,000).
“Saudi leaders should praise Walid Abu al-Khair for his commitment to defending fellow citizens’ rights,” Page noted.
“Every day Abu al-Khair remains behind bars, is a reminder that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s ‘reform’ plan is meaningless,” he pointed out.
Saudi Arabia has stepped up politically-motivated arrests, prosecution and conviction of peaceful dissident writers and human rights campaigners.
Saudi officials have also intensified crackdown in the country's Shia-populated Eastern Province.
Eastern Province has been the scene of peaceful demonstrations since February 2011. Protesters have been demanding reforms, freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, and an end to economic and religious discrimination against the oil-rich region.
The protests have been met with a heavy-handed crackdown by the regime, with regime forces increasing security measures across the province.
Over the past years, Riyadh has also redefined its anti-terrorism laws to target activism.
In January 2016, Saudi authorities executed Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was an outspoken critic of the Riyadh regime. Nimr had been arrested in Qatif, Eastern Province, in 2012.