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Saudi Arabia: Former imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque jailed for 10 years

Sheikh Saleh al Talib was arrested in August 2018 with no official explanation, say rights groups
Sheikh Saleh al Talib during a visit to Pakistan in 2018. Rights group say Talib was arrested after he delivered a sermon opposing the desegregation of men and women in public places (Screengrab)
Sheikh Saleh al Talib during a visit to Pakistan in 2018. Rights groups say he was arrested after he delivered a sermon critical of the government's entertainment industry regulator (Screengrab)

A Saudi court has sentenced a prominent former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca to 10 years in prison.

The Specialised Criminal Appeals Court in Riyadh sentenced Sheikh Saleh al Talib to prison after overturning a previous acquittal, US-based rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn) said on Monday. 

Saudi authorities first detained Talib in 2018 and gave no reason for his arrest, which came after he delivered a sermon criticising the General Entertainment Authority, a government body in charge of regulating the entertainment industry, according to activists.

He condemned concerts and events that he said broke away from the country's religious and cultural norms. 

'[It's] a stark irony that tells us that MBS’s oppression threatens every group'

Abdullah al-Oudh, spokesperson for Dawn 

Talib has a global following, with thousands of people watching his sermons and recitations of the Quran on YouTube.

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His arrest comes as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues his drive to reform Saudi society and diversify the Gulf kingdom's oil-dependent economy.

Since MBS assumed de facto power as crown prince, rights groups say authorities have arrested dozens of several prominent clerics and imams who are critical of his reform agenda.

Among those detained are Salman al-Odah, who called for the Saudi Arabian people to reconcile their differences with Qataris after Riyadh led a region-wide blockade of the Gulf country.

Dawn, a group founded by the late journalist Jamal Khashoggi, confirmed Talib's court sentencing on Twitter. 

Abdullah Alaoudh, a spokesperson for Dawn, condemned the prison sentence and said it was part of a growing pattern of clerics and imams facing imprisonment for speaking out against reforms pursued by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"The sentencing of the Grand Mosque’s Imam Saleh Al Talib to 10 years for criticizing social changes and the sentencing of women activist Salma Alshehab to 34 years for calling for real social reforms is a stark irony that tells us that MbS’s oppression threatens every group," said Alaoudh, whose father is Salman al-Odah. 

"What is in common between all political prisoners including Imam Al Talib is that they peacefully expressed their opinions and got arrested for it. This repression should stop against everyone [with] no exceptions."  

Other recent critics arrested include PhD student Salma al-Shehab, who was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweets that were critical of the Saudi government.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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