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Human rights group calls on Saudi Arabia to immediately release prominent Muslim scholar

Imprisoned Saudi Muslim cleric Salman al-Awdah (file photo)

A US-based human rights group has called on Saudi authorities to immediately release distinguished cleric Salman al-Awdah, who has been in detention for three years and is facing death penalty.

Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) said in a statement on Friday evening that the trial of the religious and reformist scholar would resume in Riyadh on Sunday.

The NGO said that Awdah's trial has been delayed by Saudi authorities on several occasions for unknown reasons.

The human rights group said that the dissident cleric has been imprisoned for three years for his statements and "peaceful activities" and faces a death sentence after 37 charges were filed against him.

According to DAWN, during interviews Awdah said he had been deprived of sleep and medicine and faced torture and mistreatment while in solitary confinement in Dhahban and al-Ha'ir prisons.

Awdah is the assistant secretary general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, which the Riyadh regime has listed as a terrorist organization.

Saudi authorities detained Awdah in September 2017, and have held him in solitary confinement without charge or trial ever since. The officials have imposed travel bans on members of his family as well.

The detained cleric has written hundreds of articles on Islamic law while at the same time embracing modernity and democracy.

The trial of Awdah, who is a popular scholar with over 13 million followers on Twitter, has been delayed by Saudi authorities on several occasions.

According to Awdah's supporters and family, a verdict was delayed on the day of the trial on more than eight occasions.

Both Awdah's family and Saudi media have previously said the detained scholar faces the death penalty, but the charge sheet has not yet been made public.

However, according to DAWN, Saudi Attorney General Saud al-Mojeb, and his deputy, Mohammed bin Ibraheem al-Subait, asked for the death penalty against the cleric on 37 charges, including "inducing corruption on earth," "objecting to the boycott of Qatar" and "interfering in the affairs of a neighboring country."

Human rights groups have condemned the trial as a political reprisal against Awdah.

According to Amnesty International, Awdah was arrested a few hours after posting a tweet calling for "harmony between people" which Saudi authorities interpreted as a call for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A family member also told Human Rights Watch that the distinguished cleric was being held over his refusal to comply with an order by Saudi authorities to tweet a specific text to support the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt all cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017, after officially accusing it of “sponsoring terrorism.”

Qatar's Foreign Ministry later announced that the decision to cut diplomatic ties was unjustified and based on false claims and assumptions.

Saudi Arabia has lately stepped up politically-motivated arrests, prosecution and conviction of peaceful dissident writers and human rights campaigners.

Saudi officials have also intensified security measures in the Shia-populated and oil-rich 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.

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