A number of rights groups have raised concerns surrounding the circumstances of al Shehi’s death, who was the latest victim of a protracted effort to quash dissent in the Kingdom.

Saudi journalist Saleh al Shehi died on July 19 following his release from prison two months ago.

Al Shehi was a columnist for the Saudi newspaper Al Watan and a frequent critic of the government. He spent two and a half years in prison before being released on 19 May on medical grounds, while serving a five-year sentence after he accused the royal court of corruption.

Since June 15, he had been in intensive care at a medical facility in Arar city and was then transferred to a hospital in Riyadh. Some reports indicated that he died from Covid-19.

But many human rights organisations are skeptical and have demanded transparency.

On Sunday evening, the Saudi monitoring group Prisoners of Conscience said al Shehi had passed away following a “serious deterioration in his health” after his release.

ALQST, an independent Saudi NGO, tweeted that al Shehi had died under “mysterious circumstances” and called for “an impartial, prompt, thorough, independent and effective investigation into his death”.

In a statement released on Monday, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) said it “expresses its deep sorrow at the loss of Saleh Al-Shehi and believes that his arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and trial are solely due to his peaceful journalistic activities and his fight against corruption.”

The organisation believed that his imprisonment had an impact on his health, and was a contributing factor to his death after being released.

“GCHR calls on the Saudi government to immediately allow an international committee of independent experts to conduct a comprehensive and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his death and to publish the results of the investigation and its recommendations locally and internationally in order to take the necessary measures to protect prisoners,” they added.

Alia al Hathloul, sister of imprisoned women’s rights activist Loujain al Hathloul, said there was “ambiguity” in both al Shehi’s death and the reasons for his release from prison.

“We want to know his health condition when he was released from prison. And the reasons that allowed him to get out of prison,” she tweeted. “This ambiguity is not in anyone’s interest.”

The circumstances surrounding al Shehi’s early prison release is unknown. While Saudi authorities have released some prisoners due to fears over Covid-19, whether it has been extended to political detainees remains unclear.

Concerted crackdown

On December 8, 2017, al Shehi appeared on Yahalla, a TV programme on Rotana Gulf, where he spoke about corruption inside the royal court. Shortly after, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison by the Specialised Criminal Court for “insulting, defaming and offending the royal court and its staff”.

His imprisonment was criticised by fellow Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was later murdered by Saudi authorities inside their consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Khashoggi described al Shehi as a “dear friend” who was being punished by the “Saudi establishment” for his contrary views.

Al Shehi was a prominent fixture for Al Watan, and the daily’s last page would feature his columns that focused on the daily concerns of Saudi citizens. He used Twitter to share his articles and reformist views, calling out corruption and demanding accountability from state institutions.

Adullah al Odah, the son of imprisoned Saudi cleric Salman al Odah, described al Shehi’s death as the latest tragedy in a line of deaths of prominent dissident Saudi journalists from Khashoggi to Abdullah al Hamid.

Al Hamid, a poet and activist, died in April while in detention. He was serving an 11-year sentence on charges that included “undermining national unity, disobeying the ruler, and questioning the integrity of officials”.

The Kingdom has long been one of the most restrictive countries globally for human rights and for freedom of expression.

It ranks 170 out of 180 countries for free expression, according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. The PEN America’s 2019 Freedom to Write Index found that Saudi Arabia incarcerated 38 writers, the second-highest number after China.

After Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidated power following his rise in 2016, the country has witnessed an intense crackdown on dissent.

In 2018, there were a number of women’s rights activists arrested, followed by the brutal state-sanctioned murder of Khashoggi, the exiled journalist and Washington Post columnist.

Further waves of arrests followed in 2019, when Saudi authorities detained prominent writers and activists in a series of home raids.

The targeted imprisonment of independent writers and bloggers reflects the ongoing attempt to shut down any domestic criticism of the Saudi regime.

Source: TRT World