Once a Sahwa leader and a trusted aide of the royal family, Salman al Odah could face the death penalty on terrorism-related charges.

Salman al Odah, a prominent Saudi scholar, has been languishing in prison since September 2017. He was arrested as a part of the kingdom’s widespread crackdown on dissent overseen by its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS).

Once a trusted aide of the royal family, Odah could face the death penalty on terrorism-related charges.

The scholar’s trial was initially scheduled for May 1. But on Sunday, after nearly two years of pre-trial detention, a Saudi anti-terrorism court further postponed the hearing until December 2019.

Odah, 62, is an internationally-renowned scholar known for his progressive views on Islamic law.

A proponent of greater democracy, Odah was seen as a threat by the Saudi monarchy. During the 2011 Arab Spring protests, he came out supporting the movements that had engulfed the region with their calls for greater freedom.

However, he was not a dissident by any means and shied away from criticising the royal family and MBS. However, troubles came to the fore when he failed to show enthusiastic support for the crown prince’s foreign policy measures.

Odah has more than 13 million followers on Twitter. During the Saudi-led blockade and boycott of Qatar, which began in June 2017, Odah tweeted a prayer in the September of that year calling for ‘harmony’ between regional leaders, without naming them specifically.

That was the last time he tweeted. 

The tweet did not go down well with the Saudi authorities and led to his detention that same month in 2017.

Incarcerated before 

Between the 1960s and 1980s, a powerful socio-political change began taking place in the kingdom. It was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood’s reformist movement and was known as the al Sahwa al Islamiyya (Islamic Awakening), or Sahwa. 

The movement not only believed in the amalgamation of religion and politics but also the integration of Islamic values in day-to-day lives, as well as education and the support of women’s rights.

Odah was a follower of that stream of thought. Its leaders began seeking an increased role in the Saudi state’s political system and that threatened many members of the royal family.

A high-profile Sahwa leader, Odah was jailed between 1994 and 1999 after calling for reforms in the country.  He even rallied for the expulsion of US troops from Saudi Arabia during Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Upon his release, he softened his stance against the state and enjoyed widespread popularity for his relatively liberal opinions on societal issues. 

Rights groups concerned

Rights groups have expressed grave concern over the imprisonment of Odah and other religious scholars.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson said: "Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's efforts to reform the Saudi economy and society are bound to fail if his justice system scorns the rule of law by ordering arbitrary arrests and punishments.”

Amnesty International has criticised the trial as ‘sham’ calling for Odah’s unconditional release. 

“We are gravely concerned that Sheikh Salman al Awda [Odah] could be sentenced to death and executed. Since his arrest almost two years ago, Sheikh al Awda [Odah] has gone through a terrible ordeal including prolonged pre-trial detention, months of solitary confinement, incommunicado detention, and other ill-treatment – all flagrant violations to his right to a fair trial.”

In April this year, the kingdom carried out the mass execution of 37 men for what it said were ‘terrorism-related crimes’. A source told Middle East Eye that the men, mainly from Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia community, and the execution were a ‘trial run’ to see how the international community would react.

“Sheikh al Awda [Odah] has been calling for a more inclusive society that would end the marginalisation of Saudi Shia citizens. For this, he is being punished,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.

Two other arrested Saudi scholars, Awad al Qarni and Ali al Omari, could also face execution. 

The kingdom has come under increasing global scrutiny over its human rights record since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year at the hands of Saudi agents, and the detention of around a dozen women activists.