A former Saudi Arabian official’s tweet expressing condolences over an activist’s death seemed benign, but his mysterious disappearance soon afterward highlighted what observers call the state’s “digital authoritarianism.”
Former Saudi Arabian deputy minister of finance Abdulaziz al-Dukhail went missing in April along with at least two other public intellectuals also believed to be in detention for their implied criticism of the state.
In the following months, separate claims surfaced that a Twitter data breach by Saudi Arabian infiltrators in 2015 resulted in a wave of “enforced disappearances” of regime critics, many with anonymous accounts on the social media platform.
The cases illustrate how Saudi Arabia, which accounts for the most Twitter users in the Arab world, has sought to harness the power of the platform to promote its ambitious reforms while also aggressively seeking to tame free expression.
The three public figures dropped from view after expressing sympathy over the death of jailed activist Abdullah al-Hamid, family members and campaign groups said.
Al-Hamid, a veteran activist, died after suffering a stroke in detention while serving an 11-year sentence, sparking a torrent of criticism from international campaigners.
Al-Dukhail’s exact whereabouts are not known and authorities have not revealed any formal charges, said his son, Abdulhakim al-Dukhail.
“Why was he taken? What was his crime?” said his son, who is based in Paris. “Is he in jail just for a tweet?”
Saudi Arabian authorities did not respond to request for comment.
The detentions mirror an offline clampdown on dissent, with activists, bloggers and even royal family members arrested in the past few years as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bolsters his grip on power.
The country has stepped up arrests under a loosely worded anti-cyber crime law, which campaigners including Amnesty International say criminalizes online criticism of the Saudi Arabian government.
“A simple tweet can land you in jail in Saudi Arabia with no access to a lawyer for months, maybe years,” Amnesty International Middle East research director Lynn Maalouf said.
Further raising concern is a 2015 Twitter data breach by Saudi Arabian hackers, which led to the unmasking and arrests of anonymous government critics on the platform, according to family members of al-Dukhail and two lawsuits against the company.
The US Department of Justice has charged two former employees with spying for the Saudi Arabian government as they accessed data on more than 6,000 accounts while looking for users “critical of the regime.”
“Such private user information included their e-mail addresses, phone numbers, IP addresses, and dates of birth,” the justice department said last year, warning that the data might have been used to locate the users.
One of those unmasked was Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a 36-year-old employee of the humanitarian group Red Crescent, who voiced opinions over human rights and social justice issues on an anonymous Twitter account, his family said.
He was in March 2018 picked up from his Riyadh office by Saudi Arabia’s secret police, said his sister, Areej al-Sadhan, who is based in San Francisco.
Two years after he disappeared, he was allowed a brief call to a relative and revealed that he was being held at the high-security Al-Ha’ir prison near Riyadh.
“It was his first and only call — it lasted less than a minute,” his sister said. “Someone behind him said: ‘Your minute is up.’ There was no goodbye, no ‘talk to you later,’ no closure. The line was cut.”
Two Saudi Arabian dissidents based in North America claimed in separate lawsuits against Twitter that their accounts were targeted in the breach, which they said endangered the lives of their associates.
One of them, Ali al-Ahmed, who heads the Washington-based think tank Institute for Gulf Affairs, in August filed an amended complaint lashing out at Twitter over its “abject failure” to protect his account.
Al-Ahmed’s lawyer provided AFP with a list of eight Saudi Arabians who were in contact with him through anonymous Twitter accounts, claiming they ended up jailed, missing or dead after the breach.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
In the past few years, the online giant has deleted thousands of “state-backed” Saudi Arabian accounts, citing breaches of the platform’s policies.
Saudi Arabia, which market research firm Statista says has about 12 million Twitter users, has seen a growth in online armies of self-styled patriots who cheerlead government policy and attack critics.
They rose as part of a policy driven by former Saudi Arabian royal court advisor Saud al-Qahtani, who earned nicknames such as “lord of the flies” for managing an electronic army.
“Saudi’s digital authoritarianism... is egregious in its audacity,” said Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University and author of the upcoming book Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East.
“Over the past few years, Saudi-connected entities have successfully utilized and penetrated Twitter to the extent that Twitter itself has become a weapon of authoritarian rule,” he said.
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