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Saudi Arabia cracks down on dissidents living abroad

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Saudi Arabia is cracking down on dissent, including targeting its citizens who live abroad. A new report by the Associated Press details how some Saudis abroad have been targeted by their own government for what they post online and even say in private conversation. They've been arrested when they return home and are given harsh prison sentences, sometimes as long as 30 years. Ellen Knickmeyer covers foreign policy and national security for the Associated Press. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: Yeah, it's my pleasure.

SIMON: Please tell us about a couple of the cases that you have reported.

KNICKMEYER: The most recent one - it's a Saudi prince who was getting his undergraduate and then his master's at Northeastern University in Boston. During the pandemic, he went home to keep studying at Northeastern remotely. And Saudi court documents show he was arrested there. This August, he's been sentenced to 30 years in prison for phone calls he made on a public phone in Boston and to his family on his Signal app, just about another family member who had earlier been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. There was a case of a U.S. Saudi citizen, a 72-year-old man living in Florida, over the years thinking in part that he had protection for being an American citizen. He tweeted a few tweets about Saudi Arabia. He went home to the kingdom, and he was imprisoned there for those tweets. He's 72 years old and he got sentenced to 16 years in prison.

SIMON: How does that violate the law? I mean, posting a tweet with a contrary opinion or something you say in a private conversation.

KNICKMEYER: Saudi Arabia for years has intensified its punishment of people who speak out on social media or publicly at all. It phrases that as being a challenge to the social unity of Saudi Arabia.

SIMON: How does the Saudi government get those recordings?

KNICKMEYER: Saudi Arabia media groups say - it's been reported that it used the Pegasus Israeli military-grade spyware to listen in on phone conversations. We had court documents backing up long-held suspicion that Saudi government officials had an informant network keeping track of Saudis in the U.S.

SIMON: Has this kind of scrutiny and these kind of sentences increased under Mohammed bin Salman?

KNICKMEYER: Definitely. It's increased ever since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by Saudis in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It just kind of changed what punishments or escalated what punishments faced ordinary Saudis or Saudi journalists or dissidents for speaking out.

SIMON: Has the U.S. government said anything to the Saudi government? I mean, these actions were on U.S. soil, weren't they?

KNICKMEYER: When we talked to the State Department for this story, they didn't specifically respond to questions about what Saudi Arabia was doing on national soil. It says that it's - the State Department has spoken to embassies in D.C. in general recently about what it calls transnational repression of governments by their citizens on U.S. soil.

SIMON: Has the Saudi government had any response, any explanation?

KNICKMEYER: Saudi Arabia told us that any allegations that the government worked against its citizens in the U.S. were preposterous and that the Saudi government only aided Saudis in the U.S.

SIMON: You've written, Ellen, that some Saudi nationals question the recent approach President Biden made to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying it only encourages this kind of behavior.

KNICKMEYER: Right. There were many kind of objections to Biden's trips from rights groups and from Saudi exiles and Saudi activists before he traveled to Saudi Arabia to try to patch up relations with the crown prince. And they say that these imprisonments of people with U.S. ties since then shows that their warnings have been borne out. They argue that attempting to appease the crown prince only emboldens him instead.

SIMON: So Saudi nationals in the U.S. - perhaps any country in the world - that might think they're free of Saudi government surveillance or not.

KNICKMEYER: One woman - one Saudi woman told me she looks over her shoulders. And I think that's an accurate description of how Saudis live their lives on U.S. soil now. They're worried about their phone conversations being listened to. They don't know who they can trust. And they - some of them have to let their passports expire or go without documents because they don't feel safe going to the Saudi embassy, they say.

SIMON: Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press. Thanks so much.

KNICKMEYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.