A test for Saudi Ara­bia

A mod­ern na­tion would re­ject bar­baric hu­man rights prac­tices.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - TOM TOLES

PRO­FOUND CHANGE may some­day come to Saudi Ara­bia. The new crown prince, Mo­hammed bin Salman, last year of­fered a soar­ing blueprint for mod­ern­iz­ing the king­dom, “Vi­sion 2030,” that promised to build “a thriv­ing coun­try in which all cit­i­zens can ful­fill their dreams, hopes and am­bi­tions.” The doc­u­ment also vowed to build a “tol­er­ant” coun­try with “mod­er­a­tion as its method” that is “a global in­vest­ment pow­er­house” and “an epi­cen­ter of trade and the gate­way to the world.”

This is a tall or­der, es­pe­cially in a king­dom where change has been ag­o­niz­ingly slow. The crown prince clearly wants to move Saudi Ara­bia to­ward a fu­ture not be­holden to oil. But in one im­por­tant re­spect Saudi Ara­bia re­mains mired in the dark ages: Hu­man rights are tram­pled upon, and free ex­pres­sion crushed. This is en­tirely out of sync with am­bi­tions to cre­ate a thriv­ing and mod­ern state.

The lat­est sign of this back­ward­ness is the fate of 14 Saudi men, all from the coun­try’s Shi­ite mi­nor­ity, who are fac­ing ex­e­cu­tion for al­legedly stag­ing protests in the king­dom. As The Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan re­ported, the men are charged with ter­ror­ism-re­lated of­fenses, but hu­man rights groups say con­fes­sions from the de­fen­dants were ex­tracted un­der tor­ture. Among those con­demned to death are Mu­jtaba’a al-Sweikat, who, af­ter at­tend­ing pro-democ­racy protests in­spired by the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012, was ar­rested at an air­port in De­cem­ber 2012 as he was leav­ing the coun­try to visit the cam­pus of West­ern Michi­gan Univer­sity, which he was think­ing of at­tend­ing. Seven­teen years old at the time, he was not given a rea­son for his ar­rest and has been in prison ever since, con­victed with­out hav­ing ac­cess to le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights ac­tivists. In a July 22 state­ment, West­ern Michi­gan fac­ulty and ad­min­is­tra­tors said Mr. Sweikat was “sub­ject to sleep de­pri­va­tions, beat­ings, cig­a­rette burns, soli­tary con­fine­ment and oth­ers forms of tor­ture or suf­fer­ing.” He was sen­tenced to death “on the sole ba­sis of a con­fes­sion ex­tracted by tor­ture,” they added, cit­ing the find­ings of the U.N. hu­man rights of­fice.

If only this were an iso­lated case. Another trav­esty sur­rounds the fate of blog­ger Raif Badawi, who has been jailed since 2012 fol­low­ing his on­line ap­peal for a more lib­eral and sec­u­lar so­ci­ety. His sen­tence was 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, of which he has been given 50 lashes. Mr. Badawi’s as­pi­ra­tions were also for a tol­er­ant and mod­er­ate Saudi Ara­bia, but that was a threat to the king­dom’s con­ser­va­tive Is­lamic es­tab­lish­ment. His treat­ment of­fers a rea­son to doubt Crown Prince Salman’s com­mit­ment to the goals of “Vi­sion 2030.”

Pres­i­dent Trump steered clear of hu­man rights in his May visit to Saudi Ara­bia, but the king­dom’s hor­rors have not van­ished. If Saudi lead­ers re­ally want to em­brace mod­ernism, they could start by re­vers­ing the bar­baric death sen­tences im­posed on 14 Shi­ite men for tak­ing part in demon­stra­tions.

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