Saudi writer sentenced to prison for criticizing royal court

FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2017 file photo released by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks at a meeting of the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Alliance in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A criminal court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a columnist to five years in prison for insulting the royal court, the official body that represents the king and crown prince, according to state-linked media on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. It’s the latest case targeting critics of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in September oversaw the arrest of dozens of prominent Saudi figures, including moderate clerics, for not publicly supporting or criticizing his domestic and foreign policies. Rights groups have described the 32-year-old prince’s crackdown on dissent as authoritarianism. (Saudi Press Agency via AP, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A criminal court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a columnist to five years in prison for insulting the royal court, the official body that represents the king and crown prince, according to state-linked media on Thursday.

It's the latest case targeting critics of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in September oversaw the arrest of dozens of prominent Saudi figures, including moderate clerics, for not publicly supporting or for criticizing his domestic and foreign policies. Rights groups have described the 32-year-old prince's crackdown on dissent as authoritarianism.

The crown prince, with the support of his father King Salman, also launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign in November, arresting at least 11 princes and dozens of business moguls and officials. Most were pressured into paying hefty financial settlements in exchange for their release.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has previously urged Saudi authorities to release the writer, Saleh al-Shehi, a prominent columnist with nearly 1.2 million followers on Twitter. CPJ says he appears to have been detained after his Dec. 8 appearance on the privately owned Rotana Channel after saying that any Saudi citizen who has a contact within the royal court automatically has an advantage in buying strategically located land unavailable to the public. Al-Shehi had been a writer at the state-linked al-Watan website.

As is typical in such cases, local media did not identify the convicted writer by name, saying only that he is a Saudi national. Okaz online reported the court also imposed a five-year travel ban against the writer after his release.

News of his conviction sparked comments on Twitter with many Saudis criticizing his prison sentence and calling it an abuse of power. Some also said that he simply expressed on television how many citizens feel.

CPJ said Saudi authorities were holding at least seven journalists behind bars as of Dec. 1, 2017.

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