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Case signals limits on free speech despite kingdom’s liberalisation push.
A Saudi Arabia court has jailed a prominent newspaper columnist after he criticised the country’s royal court, in the latest sign of the diminishing margin for free speech despite the kingdom’s push for more social liberalisation.
Saleh al-Shehi, who writes for al-Watan, the daily paper, was sentenced to five years in prison followed by a five-year travel ban for insulting the royal court and its employees, state news television reported on Thursday.
Mr Shehi was reportedly arrested in December after a televised appearance on the privately owned Rotana Khalejia channel, where he accused the royal court of being “one of the institutions that reinforced corruption” in the country, citing examples such as granting plots of land to citizens based on personal connections.
“If we want to end financial corruption then we must first shutter the windows for administrative corruption,” he said. “There are in the royal court many windows from which people can enter.”
His comments came weeks after Saudi authorities detained more than 200 princes, businessmen and former officials over alleged corruption. The majority of the suspects, held at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, were released late last month after agreeing settlements with the government.
Saudi officials have said the anti-corruption drive is an overdue attempt to boost the country’s investment climate as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform program.
The reform push also includes easing social restrictions on culture and entertainment, as well as allowing women to drive and attend football matches.
However, the latest jail sentence has renewed concern over the authorities’ tolerance for any form of dissent after dozens of people, including clerics, academics and businessmen, were arrested in September in what observers described as a campaign to silence potential critics.
“It is a harsh and painful ruling, and it goes against the policy of the king who has repeatedly said that doors and ears are open to every citizen,” said a Saudi journalist abroad who asked not to be named. “The ruling will significantly reduce freedoms in the kingdom.”
This is not the first time Mr Shehi, who has more than 1m followers on Twitter, has found himself in trouble after making controversial comments. In 2012 he criticised Saudi women writers attending a government forum because they did not wear headscarves, calling this “a shame and a disgrace”.
The then Saudi culture minister described Mr Shehi’s comments as “libel”, but no lawsuit was filed.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists on Thursday lamented the court sentence after previously calling on Saudi authorities to release the journalist.
“The fact that a reporter was sentenced to five years in prison for criticising and reporting on corruption in the kingdom adds a note of irony to the fact that one of the world’s most heavily censored countries is becoming even more closed off for critical, independent reporting,” said Justin Shilad, Middle East and North Africa research associate at CPJ.