Saudi Arabia sentences prominent cleric to ten years in prison as crackdown against dissent widens

Sheikh Saleh Al Talib, a distinguished Saudi cleric and former imam of the Grand Mosque, is pictured in the holy city of Mecca. (Photo via Twitter)

A court in Saudi Arabia has sentenced a distinguished cleric and former imam of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca to 10 years in prison, amid an intensified crackdown led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against pro-democracy campaigners, Muslim preachers, and intellectuals in the kingdom.

The so-called Specialized Criminal Appeals Court in Riyadh handed the prison sentence to Sheikh Saleh Al Talib after overturning a previous acquittal, according to the US-based rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn).

Abdullah Alaoudh, a spokesperson for Dawn, condemned the prison sentence and said it was part of a growing pattern of clerics and imams facing imprisonment for speaking out against cosmetic freedoms, like allowing concerts, sporting events, and general entertainment, which the crown prince, also known as MBS, is pushing for.

“The sentencing of the Grand Mosque’s Imam Saleh Al Talib to 10 years for criticizing social changes and the sentencing of female activist Salma al-Shehab to 34 years for calling for real social reforms is a stark irony that tells us that MBS’s oppression threatens every group,” said Abdullah. 

Abdullah’s father, Salman Alaoudh, is also a prominent reformist scholar. He was arrested in September 2017, hours after writing about his desire for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in a tweet.

A year into his incarceration without charges, Salman was accused of inciting the public against Prince Mohammed, calling for a change of government, and possessing banned books. 

“What is in common between all political prisoners including Imam Al Talib is that they peacefully expressed their opinions and got arrested for it. This repression should stop against everyone [with] no exceptions,” Abdullah said.

Ever since Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader in 2017, the kingdom has arrested hundreds of activists, bloggers, intellectuals, and others for their political activism, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnation of the crackdown.

Muslim scholars have been executed and women’s rights campaigners have been put behind bars and tortured as freedom of expression, association, and belief continue to be denied by the kingdom’s authorities.

Over the past years, Riyadh has also redefined its anti-terrorism laws to target activism.

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