The world already knows that no Saudi can express him- or herself freely. “Big Brother” is watching and listening to every word. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who ran afoul of the Saudi leadership, is still a recent memory. There is no such thing as a Saudi opposition party. And now, A Saudi app (Kollona Amn) that allows ordinary people to “play the role of a policeman” may have alerted authorities to tweets from a student sentenced to 34 years in prison. If a Saudi makes a critism about the government or shares any unpopular opinion about the Islamic religion, this app snitches him/her.
On August 18, a Saudi court has sentenced a doctoral student to 34 years in prison for spreading “rumours” and retweeting dissidents, according to court documents. Judges accused al-Shehab of “disturbing public order” and “destabilizing the social fabric” — claims stemming solely from her social media activity, according to an official charge sheet. They alleged al-Shehab followed and retweeted dissident accounts on Twitter and “transmitted false rumors. Just weeks after the verdict against Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral student at the University of Leeds, now another Saudi woman is sentenced. Rights groups say another woman has been sentenced to 45 years in prison for her social media posts, which highlights a targeted crackdown on women online.
According to DAWN, a Washington-based human rights group, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was found guilty of “using the internet to disrupt the (Saudi) social fabric“.
While it’s unclear how Qahtani’s posts were identified, human rights groups believe Shehab was reported by citizens using Kollona Amn. This government app allows citizens to alert authorities on everyday occurrences such as traffic accidents or suspicious behaviour.
In a screenshot reviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, under a comment by Shehab, one user said: “I checked your account and found it pathetic and crap, took pictures, and I sent them to Kollona Amn.“
Kollona Amn, which means “we are all safe” in Arabic, has been downloaded over a million times from the Google Play store. Although billed as a utility to speed up ‘rescue missions’, rights advocates say authorities are helping to build a wider network of activists and dissidents seen as threats to the government Saudi.
“The problem in Saudi Arabia is that their understanding of the crime is much broader than international law recognizes,” said Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “It’s so broad and vague; anything can be a crime.”
Saudi Arabia’s communications and information ministry could not be reached for comment, but officials said earlier there were no political prisoners in the country. “We have prisoners in Saudi Arabia who have committed crimes and are being tried and found guilty by our courts,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in July.