'Deepening repression' alongside Saudi reforms: HRW

Despite a perception that the outcry over the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi had left the Saudis chastened, critics of the kingdom are still being vigorously pursued, says Human Rights Watch (AFP Photo/CHARLY TRIBALLEAU)

Dubai (AFP) - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pursued landmark reforms since coming to power, but his rise has been accompanied by "deepening repression and abusive practices", Human Rights Watch said Monday.

Despite a perception that the outcry over the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi had left the Saudis chastened, critics of the kingdom are still being vigorously pursued with measures including arbitrary travel bans and harassment of their families, it said.

"Detaining citizens for peaceful criticism of the government's policies or human rights advocacy is not a new phenomenon in Saudi Arabia," the New York-based group said in a report.

"But what has made the post-2017 arrest waves notable and different, however, is the sheer number and range of individuals targeted over a short period of time as well as the introduction of new repressive practices."

Since becoming de facto ruler two years ago, Prince Mohammed has been on a modernisation drive with reforms including allowing women to drive, and to receive passports and travel abroad without permission from male relatives.

However HRW said those moves were a smokescreen for the ongoing detention of dozens of dissidents, some allegedly tortured in custody, and a lack of accountability for those responsible for Khashoggi's murder.

"Important social reforms enacted under Prince Mohammed have been accompanied by deepening repression and abusive practices meant to silence dissidents and critics," it said.

- Arrests and spyware -

HRW said that since Khashoggi's murder by Saudi agents in the kingdom's consulate in Turkey -- a crime Prince Mohammed has sought to distance himself from -- more than 30 more detentions and arrests have been carried out.

The crackdown under Prince Mohammed began in September 2017 with the arrests of dozens of critics including intellectuals and influential clerics, in what was widely seen as a move to crush dissent.

In November, hundreds of elite princes and businessmen were detained -- some for weeks -- at Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel, in what was billed as a move against corruption that was draining state coffers.

Apart from those dramatic moves, HRW said Riyadh had more quietly been targeting family members of prominent dissidents and activists.

After this week's announcement that state energy giant Aramco is destined for a blockbuster stock market debut, it also highlighted the case of economist Essam al-Zamil who, activists believe, was targeted because of his scepticism over the IPO.

Zamil, "who had called into question Saudi projections of revenue from the Aramco initial public offering", is on trial for alleged membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, it said.

HRW also cited reports that Saudi Arabia has used surveillance technologies to hack into the online accounts of government critics and infected their mobile phones with spyware.