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In Saudi Arabia, deleting someone from a WhatsApp group could lead to jail

Users in kingdom close WhatsApp groups as legal interpretation about removing members raises alarm bells
A legal adviser has claimed that deleting someone from a WhatsApp group could lead to a fine and jail sentence, causing a stir in the country (AFP/File photo)

Deleting someone from a WhatsApp group in Saudi Arabia could land users with a prison sentence and a hefty fine, according to a legal counsellor in the kingdom. 

Legal adviser Ahmed Ajab told Makkah newspaper on Monday that Saudis could face significant consequences for the seemingly innocuous act. 

Ajab cited a paragraph in Saudi Arabia’s anti-cybercrime law stipulating that those who defamed and caused harm to others through the means of information technology were subject to a fine and jail sentence. 

He argued that if someone who had been removed from a WhatsApp group filed a complaint to the relevant authorities, the person responsible for the deletion could face up to one year in prison and a 500,000 riyal ($133,300) fine. 

He said that being deleted from a  group on the messaging app could result in “moral harm that reduces [a person’s] value and degrades his position", though he clarified that if departure from a group did not result in any current or potential harm, there would be no legal consequences. 

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Causing a stir in Saudi

On Thursday, Al-Watan said that the reports had raised alarm bells among Saudi WhatsApp users, many of whom had closed groups out of fear of being liable to punishment. 

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Lawyer Fawaz al-Dakhil told the newspaper that Ajab’s interpretation was misplaced and exaggerated, and said text from the anti-cybercrime law was not applicable to removals from WhatsApp groups. 

Another lawyer, Khalid al-Mahmadi, said that while a member of a WhatsApp group could file a claim in a civil court for any damages they had sustained, there was no criminal penalty for removing members. 

Reacting to the report on social media, a Sweden-based Saudi human rights activist accused Saudi Arabia of prioritising the imprisonment of members of WhatsApp groups, whilst not punishing authorities for alleged kidnappings and killings, and the disappearance of public funds. 

Meanwhile, Sultan al-Amer, a US-based Saudi academic, said: “When your legal system is underdeveloped, you'll get legal advisers like this.”

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

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