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Neom: Saudi tribesman sentenced to death over megaproject protest 'was tortured'

Shadli al-Howeiti was force-fed in prison after a hunger strike months before he was handed the death penalty, Alqst reports
Before his 2020 arrest, Shadli al-Howeiti was well-known in his community for his social media posts protesting the evictions over Neom, his cousin told MEE (Photo: Alqst)

One of the Saudi Arabian men sentenced to death this month for resisting their tribe's displacement over the Neom megaproject was tortured in prison, a UK-based rights group has reported.

Shadli al-Howeiti was arrested in 2020 for opposing the forcible eviction of the Howeitat tribe. This May, according to Alqst, he went on hunger strike to protest his ill-treatment in prison, including being placed in solitary confinement.

After two weeks, authorities at the Dhahban Prison in Jeddah - the same facility where women's rights activists say they were sexually harassed and tortured in 2018 - inserted a tube into his stomach to force-feed him, a form of torture, Alqst said on Monday. 

Saudi Arabia's Specialised Criminal Court handed death sentences to Shadli al-Howeiti and two of his relatives, Ibrahim al-Howeiti and Ataullah al-Howeiti - who were also arrested in 2020 over their resistance to eviction - on 2 October.

Ibrahim al-Howeiti, Alqst said, was a member of a delegation of local residents who met in 2020 with the official commission charged with securing government titles to the lands required for the project.

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Ataullah al-Howeiti has been seen in several video clips "talking about the misery of his family and all of the other displaced residents" who also faced eviction, the rights group said.

"These shocking sentences once again show the Saudi authorities' callous disregard for human rights, and the cruel measures they are prepared to take to punish members of the Huwaitat tribe for legitimately protesting against forced eviction from their homes," said Alqst's Abdullah Aljuraywi.

Middle East Eye has asked the Saudi government for comment.

'These shocking sentences once again show the Saudi authorities' callous disregard for human rights'

- Abdullah Aljuraywi, Alqst

Their sentencing comes as Howeitat tribespeople have reported an escalation in the campaign by authorities to drive them from their land for the flagship project, including cuts to their water and electricity services, and surveillance drones.

Two other Howeitat members - Abdulilah al-Howeiti and Abdullah Dukhail al-Howeiti - were given 50-year prison terms and 50-year travel bans in August for supporting their family's refusal to be evicted from their homes in the kingdom's Tabuk province.

The three men who Alqst says were sentenced to death are the cousins of Alya al-Howeiti, a UK-based member of the tribe who leads the Justice for Neom Victims campaign and founder of the recently launched Arab Independent Opposition League.  

Alya al-Howeiti, who could not herself confirm the sentences, told Middle East Eye on Monday that the men are in their 30s and 40s. Shadli, she said, is particularly well-known on social media, much like his brother Abdul Rahim al-Howeiti, who had regularly posted videos on YouTube protesting the government’s eviction orders before he was shot dead by Saudi special forces in an April 2020 standoff.

Jeed Basyouni, from the anti-death penalty NGO Reprieve, said the kingdom’s use of the death penalty to suppress dissent is well-documented. 

“Of the 81 men killed in the mass execution this March, more than half had been convicted of taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations,” Basyouni told MEE.

“The indiscriminate application of capital punishment, including against children, non-violent offenders and people exercising their right to free speech, is starkly at odds with the image Mohammed bin Salman's regime seeks to project to the world."

The three men join a growing list of Saudi Arabians who have been handed extreme sentences since August. They include Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University student and mother of two; and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, a mother of five. They were given 34 years and 45 years, respectively, over tweets critical of the Saudi government.

Osama Khaled, a writer, translator and computer programmer, was sentenced to 32 years over allegations relating to the right of free speech, Alqst has said.

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