Saudi Arabia would like to soften its world image after it was accused of complicity in the killing of Washington Post Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
But Saudi women living abroad who dissent from the kingdom are subject to harassment.
According to Freedom House, the Saudi Arabian government is perhaps the best known in the world for targeting its nationals abroad.
"This campaign has included extensive use of spyware, proxy punishment, detentions, assaults, and renditions in nine countries spanning the Middle East, Europe, North America, and Asia. The Saudi Arabian government's transnational repression campaign also includes a uniquely gendered aspect; women fleeing gender-based repression in the country face characteristic transnational repression efforts from the state."
U.S. federal prosecutors have arrested a 42-year-old man, Ibrahim Alhussayen, on charges of lying to federal officials about using fake online accounts to harass and threaten Saudi dissidents, in particular women, living in the U.S. and Canada, Newsweek reported. The FBI says he told investigators he didn't use any social media accounts other than those in his own name.
The arrest comes as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) stifles opposition, both in the kingdom and abroad, while trying to portray himself as a reformer. President Joe Biden met with MBS last weekend amid criticism that he shouldn't go to Saudi Arabia because of its human rights abuses.
Biden said he raised Khashoggi's "outrageous" murder with MBS and was "straightforward and direct" about human rights issues. "If anything like that occurs again, they'll get that response and much more."
The arrest of Alhussayen in New York is just the tip of the iceberg, said Abdullah Alaoudh, Gulf research director for Democracy for Arab World Now, a Washington-based human rights watchdog, who says he was harassed himself. "It's a much larger campaign by the Saudi government to reach people outside."
Between January 2019 and August 2020, Alhussayen used his Instagram account, @samar16490, to insult and threaten young women and reported to an official at the Saudi Royal court, Newsweek reported.
Prosecutors also said Alhussayen had taken screenshots of Khashoggi's Twitter posts dating back a year before his death and kept photos of Khashoggi on his phone.
Alhussayen threatened al-Mayouf, the Saudi activist, who hosts a popular YouTube show that criticizes Saudi-related current events and prominent officials. She had to move after a pro-Saudi website posted her New York address.
Moudi Aljohani, another prominent Saudi women's rights activist who petitioned for asylum in the U.S, said she was shaken when Alhussayen reached out in 2020 from his fake Instagram account with a cryptic picture of her close family member. Alhussayen allegedly said he hoped she met the same fate as Nada al-Qahtani, a Saudi woman who was fatally shot by her brother in a so-called "honor killing" in the kingdom in 2020.
"The Saudis are paying big money to fix their image and the way they see it, we're ruining it for them," Aljohani said. "I feel like there's no place that's safe."
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