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Saudi Prosecutors Are Targeting A US Citizen For Tweets Criticizing The Government

The Saudi government is decidedly unconcerned that other nations may have concerns about its censorship efforts. I mean, if need be, it will murder and dismember critics who prove unwilling to be silenced by less drastic efforts.

Having some of the keys to the oil kingdom helps, providing leverage against foreign governments that may want to issue sanctions or publicly criticize the wealthy and powerful nation. Its power over its own citizens is undeniable. Quasi-legislative responses to issues like misinformation and cybersecurity have given the Saudi government even more weaponry to deploy against citizens who refuse to bend a knee.

And the government will go extraterritorial if needed. Thanks to careless purveyors of powerful malware (yeah, that’s you, NSO Group), the Saudi government is able to target foreign citizens with exploits that fully compromise their communication devices.

This case, brought to our attention by Sarah McLaughlin, contains a couple of wrinkles that may make it more difficult to convince the Saudi government to end its investigation of a US citizen over critical tweets.

Here’s what’s happening now, as detailed by Human Rights Watch’s call for an end of this US citizen-targeting oppression effort:

Saudi prosecutors should drop an investigation possibly leading to formal criminal charges against a US citizen living in Saudi Arabia for “disrupting the public order,” Human Rights Watch said today. Carly Morris, 34, believes the allegation relates to her statements on social media voicing concerns about how Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system has affected her and her 8-year-old daughter.

A legal summons reviewed by Human Rights Watch orders Morris to appear at the public prosecution court in Buraydah in al-Qassim province on September 18, 2022. Article 103 of the criminal procedure law, cited in the summons, authorizes prosecutors to arrest and detain a person who is under investigation.

The person targeted by the investigation says she believes it was prompted by tweets she made earlier this year that criticized the Saudi’s government’s shifting of all power in relationships to the male partner — something that prevents the US citizen from leaving the country with her daughter, seeking medical care for her child, or deciding where her child attends school.

Morris’ situation went from uncertain to untenable shortly after she arrived in the country, as reported in August by Middle East Eye. Carly Morris married a Saudi resident in 2012 after meeting him on a Muslim dating site. They divorced in 2018. In 2019, her ex-husband convinced her and her daughter to visit him. She’s been trapped in the country ever since.

Morris was able to visit the kingdom on a tourist visa, which was to expire after 30 days. They had only planned on staying that long. Since Tala’s father was a Saudi citizen, she was able to visit the country on a laissez-passer, a temporary travel document to permit the child to enter the country with her father. 

Morris’ ex-husband seized their documents and refused to give them back. Before her visa expired, she says he “entered and exited” her out of the country. She now has multiple stampings of visas on her passport.

Her ex-husband soon registered a hotel room under his name, and for the past three years, that is where Morris and her daughter have been staying. Every week, he’d come by and drop off groceries, food, and water. Then, on 30 March 2022, he reportedly picked Tala up in the early morning and she was never returned. All phone calls went unanswered.

Under Saudi law, the male controls legal guardianship. This is still in place despite a Saudi court granting Morris full custody of her daughter. On top of that, Morris’ ex-husband had converted her daughter’s US citizenship to Saudi citizenship. Morris is now free to leave, but cannot take her daughter with her. Seeing no other form of recourse, Morris publicly criticized the government and these laws on Twitter, setting off a chain of events that has culminated with the Saudi government apparently seeking to bring criminal charges against the US citizen. Her ex-husband was instrumental in this push to punish Morris, filing his own “slander and defamation” criminal complaint against her.

The threat to Morris’ freedom (even as limited as it currently is) is real. Human Rights Watch notes that two other women have been jailed for decades on similar charges.

Saudi courts have recently convicted and sentenced at least two other women on similar charges for their peaceful online speech. On August 9, an appeals court sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi doctoral student at the University of Leeds, to 34 years in prison for “disrupt[ing] the order and fabric of society.” That same day, Saudi courts sentenced Nourah bin Saeed al-Qahtani to 45 years in prison for “using the internet to tear the [country’s] social fabric.”

This is where the US government should intervene. It may make things uncomfortable, but if it doesn’t stand up for one of its own, it will only encourage the Saudi government to continue targeting foreign citizens with criminal charges over speech that would not be illegal in their native lands.

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