Saudi Scholar: My Father Faces the Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia for Supporting Human Rights

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While the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October sparked international outrage, far less attention has been paid to the ongoing Saudi repression at home. We speak with Abdullah Alaoudh, whose father has been locked up in solitary confinement in Saudi Arabia for his political activism since September 2017. Prior to his arrest, prominent Islamic scholar Salman Alodah had been a vocal critic of the Saudi monarchy who had called for elections with 14 million Twitter followers. But for the past 17 months, Salman Alodah has been silenced. He was one of dozens of religious figures, writers, journalists, academics and civic activists arrested as part of a crackdown on dissent in 2017 overseen by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. We speak with Alodah’s son Abdullah Alaoudh. He is a senior fellow at Georgetown University in the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at Saudi Arabia’s ongoing crackdown on dissent. While the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October sparked international outrage, far less attention has been paid to the ongoing Saudi repression at home.

Our next guest’s father has been locked up in solitary confinement in Saudi Arabia for his political activism since September of 2017. Prior to his arrest, prominent Islamic scholar Salman Alodah had been a vocal critic of the Saudi monarchy who had called for elections. And his voice was widely heard. On Twitter alone, he had 14 million followers. But for the past 17 months, Salman Alodah has been silenced.

AMY GOODMAN: Salman’s son Abdullah Alaoudh is now speaking out about his father’s imprisonment. In a recent New York Times op-ed headlined “My Father Faces the Death Penalty. This Is Justice in Saudi Arabia,” he writes, “He was chained and handcuffed for months inside his cell, deprived of sleep and medical help and repeatedly interrogated throughout the day and night. His deteriorating health—high blood pressure and cholesterol that he developed in prison—was ignored until he had to be hospitalized. Until the trial, about a year after his arrest, he was denied access to lawyers.”

Salman Alodah was one of the dozens of religious figures, writers, journalists, academics and civic activists arrested as part of a crackdown on dissent in 2017 overseen by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

We turn now to Salman Alodah’s son Abdullah, who joins us from Chicago. Abdullah Alaoudh is a senior fellow at Georgetown University in the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about why your father was first arrested, his condition now?

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Thank you for hosting me.

He was actually part of a movement demanding and asking a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia. In 2011, he, along with other colleagues, signed a petition and called the Saudi public to sign a petition asking and demanding a civil and more democratic change in Saudi Arabia. But after the Arab Spring, the Saudi regime did not seem to tolerate such discourse, so they—I mean, the relationship between my father and the state deteriorated. However, when the crown prince came to power, he actually started to crack down on the reformist figures, like my father and others, and while at the same time taking their ideas, like moderate Islam, representing it to the West as his own, but at the same time cracking down on the very moderate voices of the kingdom that have been historically spearheading the campaign against terrorism and extremism in Saudi Arabia.

In 2017, when the rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia started, he tweeted seeking reconciliation between the two rulers, of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but the crown prince took this to be a confrontation. And in a few hours, just after his tweet, he was arrested by the state security forces and was locked up in solitary confinement until today. Now the attorney general is seeking death penalty against him on 37 charges, including “corrupting” the Earth and “disagreeing with the ruler” and, you know, vague and very general charges like this, and even having books that are banned by the kingdom.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But now, your father, before his arrest, was extremely popular. Not only did he have millions of Twitter followers, he also had a TV show. Could you talk about what his TV show addressed? And was the government’s attempt to—well, the jailing of him a clear attempt to silence his voice?

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Very true. He had a TV show on the state-sponsored TV channel in Saudi Arabia called MBC. He, you know, presented a civil discourse seeking a social change. He supported, you know, political rights and basic liberties in Saudi Arabia. At that time, it was tolerated, until he condemned corruption in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. The governor then of Riyadh, the prince then, then-Prince Salman, who is king now, asked somebody in his office to call my father, live, and, you know, disagreed with him and said, “You should not talk about corruption in Saudi Arabia.” And after that episode, the show was canceled. And then the Arab Spring erupted, and my father joined the calls for a civil and peaceful transformation in Saudi Arabia toward a more open and inclusive approach in politics in Saudi Arabia.

AMY GOODMAN: Abdullah, I’d like to turn to an excerpt from a video of your father, Salman Alodah, produced in 2013. The video has more than 3 million views on YouTube.

SALMAN ALODAH: [translated] Gandhi had a dream to feed all the dark tummies rather than the racist colonizers. Mandela had a dream to hear the voice of Africans chanting their national anthem. Martin Luther expressed his dream in his speech “I Have a Dream,” that his four children should not be treated based on their color. Let’s have our own dream, to have our light shining from within, not from without, and combine our varying colors into a beautiful painting. Like you, I long for the place where I played as a child and cherished as a man. Like you, full of ambition and expectation and the desire to be remembered when I’m gone. Like you, stung by words that judge me, in a country I don’t recognize and in a place I don’t belong to.

AMY GOODMAN: Abdullah, that is your father’s voice, of course translated. Can you talk about this video and the message your father wanted to convey? And what kind of response did he receive to it?

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: The message was to condemn the discrimination, the social discrimination, political discrimination, racial and religious discrimination, in Saudi Arabia. He wanted to spread awareness in Saudi Arabia to the Saudi public. This discourse is the very discourse that crown prince is fighting against. The same rogue operatives who actually attacked Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate are actually seeking the same death, death penalty, against my father for similar reasons: political and civil activism. In videos, in other videos, my father chanted for political change, for social change. So, it was a pattern in the past one year and a half that the Saudi crown prince—since the Saudi crown prince ascended to power, that the reformist voices are attacked, while at the same time the same discourse that these reformists presented will be presented to the West like if it’s the crown prince’s ideas, just for PR campaigns, without any real reforms or even real change in Saudi Arabia.

I’ll give you just a few examples. The crown prince, for example, talked about empowering women, while at the same time he locked up in jail very prominent activists, like Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan. And there are reports now, credible reports, about sexual harassment and other human rights violations inside prison. So, at the same time when the crown prince tried to promulgate to the West that he is supporting moderate Islam, he locked up the very moderate voices of the kingdom, while embracing extremist voices like Saleh al-Fawzan, who called for killing any dissident, Saleh al-Fawzan who said anyone who disagrees with the Wahhabi doctrine is an infidel, and he called for excluding those voices who are not within the same sect of Islam, let alone Islam itself, or religion. Now, while—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, let me ask—

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: While also the crown prince—just to add one more, while the crown prince also tried to present the economic transformation like it’s his own, he locked up in jail the very economists who presented to him and others for the past—you know, for the past 10 years, a plan to transform and diversify the Saudi economy. So, he used all that. He did various superficial reforms to do a PR campaign to the West, while locking up the very voices that actually wanted to change the kingdom toward a more civil and civilized society.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, let me ask you. Your father has been held in solitary confinement in prison in Saudi Arabia. Have you been able to communicate with him at all, or other members of your family? What’s his condition like there?

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Yeah, a few members of my family have communicated with him. He has several, you know, health issues. Now he developed spinal issues because of the way that they transferred him from one room to another, one cell to another. They did not even care about his health, his age. He’s a 61- or 62-year-old. They did not care about his background, his popularity, his family, his beloved ones. They just did not care about anything. He was handcuffed. Chains were put on his feet. He was interrogated more than 24 hours continuously, like for a few days. They wanted him to hallucinate at some point, so he would just sign anything that they wanted him to. They just treated him like hell.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you—Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was killed, was a friend of yours.

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the impact of his death? And also, are you worried, speaking out this way, given how the Saudi government treats dissidents, even those abroad?

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Right. Actually, the case of Jamal Khashoggi is a demonstration of how the pattern, you know, would do, how the pattern would practice the authoritarian practices in Saudi Arabia, how the crown prince—I mean, how far will the crown prince go. He reached someone in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. And they did not care about the outcry of the West. They did not care about the uproar. They just cared about how to consolidate power, how to put all the power in one single hand.

The incident of Jamal Khashoggi should alarm the West that we tolerated such—if we tolerated such practices. We are witnessing a Saddam Hussein that—I mean, with the same conditions. We tolerated Saddam Hussein because we thought we could support him to fight Iran. Now we are doing the same exact mistake with the crown prince. We’re tolerating every catastrophe that he has done during the past year and a half. He launched strikes against civilians in Yemen. He put a prime minister of Lebanon under house arrest in 2018—in 2017, November. He actually killed Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran journalist, inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. And we tolerated all these atrocities. He cut ties with Canada over its wheat, for God’s sake, and we tolerated all that. And we thought, “Well, we could be an ally with this crown prince in order to fight Iran.” Well, guess what. That’s the same exact ground that we had supported Saddam Hussein for, and look what we did and what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Abdullah, are you afraid of speaking out, as we wrap up right now? I mean, Jamal Khashoggi was murdered outside of Saudi Arabia, albeit in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey. You’re speaking out here, on behalf of your father and for reform in Saudi Arabia, in the United States. Can you go home? Do you feel safe in the United States?

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: I feel safe here. And I don’t know, though—and we witnessed how far that the—how far the Saudi crown prince went. They reached outside. And there are intercepted calls and reports of his calling the Saudi intelligence to bring—to lure dissidents and figures who disagree with him from outside to Saudi Arabia. They have no limits. So, yeah, but, I mean, I know I’m taking a high risk, but it’s worth taking, because we have no choice. We have to speak out. My father’s life is at stake. And not just my father. The feminist activists are actually right now sexually harassed, abused, and human rights violations are practiced inside prison. And hundreds of activists, intellectuals, public figures, economists, their health and freedom is at stake. So, it’s a risk worth taking to speak for all these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Abdullah, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Abdullah Alaoudh is a senior fellow at Georgetown University in the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. We’ll link to your piece in The New York Times headlined “My Father Faces the Death Penalty. This Is Justice in Saudi Arabia.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Portland, Oregon. Stay with us.

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