In October 2018, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began its prosecution of the prominent Islamic researcher, Sheikh Hassan al-Maliki, in the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, which was specially established in January 2009 to handle cases of terrorism and national security.

The official Saudi newspaper, Sabq, said on October 1, 2018, that the Specialized Criminal Court began “the trial of a religious skeptic accused of defaming the Sunnah and the hadith of the Prophet,” in reference to al-Maliki, who has consistently put forth tolerant opinions at odds with the official religious establishment, which has adopted an extremist approach.

The public prosecution, which is directly linked to the Saudi king, has leveled charges almost entirely related to Maliki’s religious views and has requested that the court execute him as a form of ta’zir punishment based on selected religious texts and extremistinterpretations,with clear contempt for his inherent right to freedom of thought and conscience guaranteed by international law. Several hearings have been held for al-Maliki in the Specialized Criminal Court, and his next hearing, the fifth one approximately, is scheduled for April 29, 2019. Saudi Arabia arrested al-Maliki in September 2017; in addition to al-Maliki, there were a series of arrests in September of prominent religious scholars, some of whom face similar requests for the death sentence.

About a month after al-Maliki’s arrest, his son, al-Abbas, was known to have been arrested amid tweets addressing the circumstances of his father’s arrest. The arrest of al-Abbas al-Maliki came about in the context of inhumane punishments imposed against children and families of prisoners of conscience.

The ESOHR has been apprised of the list of the fourteen charges against al-Maliki, including among others:

  1. Not believing in the validity of all the hadiths reported by al-Bukhari.
  2. Criticizing the actions of some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him and his family.
  3. Holding numerous television interviews with foreign newspapers and channels “hostile”to the Kingdom (Al-Jazeera, Al-Alam).
  4. Describing the official Council of Senior Scholars as extremist.
  5. Writing many books and research papers and publishing them outside the Kingdom, despite knowing that he wasprohibited from doing so by the competent authorities.
  6. Preparing, storing,or transmitting anything that would harm public order and religious values.
  7. Possessing 348 books not authorized by the competent authority.

It seems clear from the charges against al-Maliki that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s claims, made in October 2017 in Riyadh, that Saudi Arabia is returning to the moderate and tolerant Islam of its past, open to the world and all religions, and that his country will not lose another 30 years dealing with extremist ideas, are just lies for the purpose of catering to the desires of Western countries. In addition to the case of al-Maliki, in its review of numeroustexts of judgments concerning 27 political prisoners, some of whom were executed, issued by the notorious Specialized Criminal Court, and a number of other “lists of charges” issued by the public prosecutor concerning seven political detainees, the ESOHR has documented Saudi Arabia’s use of a radical approach to justify the execution and oppression of dissidents.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s poor record in the area of freedom of belief and its use of extremist ideology to eliminate domestic opponents, it has found itself obliged internationally to appear tolerant, contrary to reality, in order to mislead international public opinion. In 2012, Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria, which, according to its staff, seeks “to promote dialogue and understanding among people of different faiths and cultures and to develop a culture of respect for diversity.”

On May 21, 2017, Saudi Arabia announced the establishment of the Global Center to Combat Extremism (Etidal), inaugurated by King Salman bin Abdulaziz in the presence of American president Donald Trump and Arab and Muslim leaders. Among the strategic objectives of the center are “strengthening the intellectual aspect associated with countering and refuting the discourse of exclusion and spreading the concepts of moderation and acceptance of the other.” The center continuously announces visits of its members to international bodies and visits from international bodies and non-Saudi individuals in the context, as it says, of cooperating in spreadingglobal tolerance. Several days ago, on March 19, 2019, Etidal tweeted under the hashtag #NewZealand_terrorist_incident: “The supreme message of religions is human triumph and the promotion of the values of coexistence, tolerance, and peace,” accompanied by three comments from leaders of different religions, including the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh, who said: “The most dangerous ideas are those peddled in the name of religion.” Yet, inside Saudi Arabia, neither Etidal nor the Grand Mufti has commented on the religious charges leveled against Islamic researcher al-Maliki, who faces the death penalty, even though official newspapers have been covering his case for more than six months.

On July 2, 2018, Saudi Arabia arrested a citizen named Zuhair Hussein Busaleh – who had previously been jailed and lashed in July 2015 – for performing his prayers at home. Busaleh, who belongs to the Shiite sect and lives in the city of Khobar, was not released until around January 2019, although his prison sentence was only two months. Not only did Busaleh’s sentence include sixty lashes, he was also subjected to severe torture in prison. In August 2018, the ESOHR reached out to multiple entities that had visited theGlobal Center to Combat Extremismagainst the backdrop of Busaleh’s arrest and presented his case as a clear example that the center is deliberately misleading with the intention of falsifying the facts on the ground.

Contrary to the recent superficial changes in Saudi Arabia, it does not appear that serious political decisions have been made to change the extremist religious ideology used to squelchdissenting opinions, despite the huge sums spent on centers seeking to burnish Saudi Arabia’s image abroad. The case of al-Maliki is not an exception in the history of Saudi Arabia: in 1992, amidst doctrinal disputes, Saudi Arabia killed a Jafari Shi’ite youth named Sadeq Mallallah by cutting off his head in the Thursday market in the city of Qatif. The death penalty requested for al-Maliki, coming about 27 years after the crime of killing Mallallah, reveals that Saudi Arabia, at heart, has not changed. All the superficial changes playing out in the media are intended to mislead public opinion and divert its attention from the grave violations that affect political and religious differences in Saudi Arabia.

The public prosecutor has used selected religious texts and extremist understandings of the statements of religious scholars in an awful way to justify requesting the death sentence against al-Maliki. Because al-Maliki does not believe in the validity of all of the hadiths in the two books of hadith known as Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, the public prosecutor relied on the statements of scholars with the intent of excommunicating al-Maliki as a prelude to executing him. Among themis the saying of Ibn al-Wazir: “Denial of a hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him, with the knowledge that it is a hadith, is clear disbelief.” There are millions in Saudi Arabia who share the views of al-Maliki, for which they may be executed. According to these extremist interpretations of selected religious texts and the words of scholars, Saudi Arabia can putall of them to death.

The ESOHR believes that the request of the Saudi public prosecutor, who is directly linked to the king, for the death penalty against the prominent researcher, Hussein Farhan al-Maliki, on charges pertaining to his religious views and personal convictions, demonstrates clearly that King Salman and his son the crown prince sponsor extremist thought and forcefully promote its presence in Saudi courts because it provides the religious cover needed to eliminate all opinion-makers and human rights advocates.

The ESOHR believes that the current Saudi heir, contrary to what is shown in media chatter, is one of the most extreme ever. This is reflected in the request for the death sentence for al-Maliki and the extremist religious interpretations used by Saudi Arabia to execute and suppress dissidents and opinion makers.