A distinguished Saudi economist is being charged with treason by the country’s public prosecutor. According to Al Jazeera, the allegations against this businessman, Essam al-Zamil, claim that he has dispensed private information about the kingdom to foreign diplomats. His past public criticism of a government plan to sell part of the state-owned oil company, Aramco, may be a key factor as to why al-Zamil is being targeted by authorities. The fate of many scholars and intellectuals who have been in custody since the government’s repression of opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is unknown. This is the case for Al-Zamil, who has been incarcerated since 17 September of this year.
Due to the event’s recency and the lack of verifiable information surrounding al-Zamil’s situation, there hasn’t been much commentary on the issue, which is, at best, disturbing. It was al-Zamil’s close friend and the head of ALQST (a Saudi rights organization in London), Yahya Assiri, who disclosed al-Zamil’s identity as the economist being prosecuted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). When the Reuters news agency reached out to Saudi’s government media office, there was no response.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been reporting on the corruption of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system, exposing how the country has detained people for up to ten years without even referring them to a judge for trial and due process. This goes directly against Saudi Arabia’s Law of Criminal Procedure, and becomes even more of a blunder when combined with the government’s mass arrest of 381 people on fraudulent charges.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW, spoke on the issue. “If Saudi authorities can hold a detainee for months on end with no charges, it’s clear that the Saudi criminal justice system remains broken and unjust, and it only seems to be getting worse.”
This controlling, crooked behavior is only what can be anticipated due to the structure of the country. Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian absolute monarchy where the King controls the government and the state. Reuters notes that public protests are actually banned in Saudi Arabia, as well as political parties. The media is all government-regulated, and labor unions are illegal. Criticizing any aspect of the royal family can lead to imprisonment. Countless Saudi citizens have been arrested in an attempt to crush expressions of dissent, democracy, or advocacy for human rights.
On past occasions, such as the unlawful detention of women’s rights activists, parties such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the European Parliament (EP) have stepped in to condemn Saudi Arabia and demand that they release activists with no real charges laid against them.
Al-Zamil has also been accused of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, a member-state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with whom Saudi Arabia has cut ties. Furthermore, Saudi authorities have deemed the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist” group, most likely because the party presents a different Islamist political model that threatens the Saudi state.
Needless to say, there needs to be a system of checks and balances in place under which the KSA can be held accountable for its actions. As it stands, the many prisoners held captive by this oppressive regime will have no hope of liberation. There is no excuse for turning human rights activists and people who challenge certain beliefs into criminals. If there is to be a monarchy, there needs to be rules in place protecting the people from a kingdom that takes advantage of its complete control to silence those who oppose it. Praise is owed to the OHCHR and the EP for getting involved and aiding activists. However, their protection and advocacy should extend to all of the businessmen and officials imprisoned for their words and beliefs. Al-Zamil and all others who protested the privatization of Aramco deserve justice and a fair chance to prove their innocence.
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