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Saudi court imprisons football fans for religious chant

2 min

A Saudi court has sentenced twelve soccer fans to prison terms and fines for chanting a Shia religious song at a soccer match last January.

The al-Safa club, which the defendants were supporting, has also been severely punished © X

A Saudi court has sentenced twelve soccer fans to prison terms and fines for chanting a Shia religious song at a soccer match last January, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The group of fans was arrested after a video showing them celebrating the birth of Imam Ali in song was circulated on social networks.

The footage was shot on Jan. 24 during a soccer match between the al-Safa club and the al-Bukiryah club in the country's Eastern Province, home to Saudi Arabia's minority Shia community, which is regularly subjected to discrimination.

Following a police investigation in which 150 people were arrested and then eventually released, a Saudi criminal court in Dammam sentenced two supporters on Wednesday to one year in prison and a fine of 10,000 Saudi riyals (around $2,666), and the ten others to one year in prison, six months' probation and a fine of 5,000 Saudi riyals (around $1,333), according to a source close to the case quoted by the NGO.

The twelve defendants were initially held in Qatif prison, then transferred to Dammam General Prison, the source added. The investigation concluded with a request for charges to be brought under Article 6 of Saudi Arabia's 2007 Cybercrime Law, HRW said, citing court documents listing the charges. This law provides for penalties of up to five years' imprisonment and a fine of up to 3 million Saudi riyals (around $800,000).

An initial charge of "sending material likely to undermine public order using the Internet and electronic devices" was brought against two of the defendants. As a whole, the twelve men were convicted of "undermining public order through a spirit of sectarian intolerance by disseminating sectarian content in places of public assembly and inciting social conflict."

The al-Safa club, which the defendants were supporting, has also been severely punished. 

The Saudi Ministry of Sports announced on Feb. 3 the dissolution of its board of directors, due to violations of the country's basic rules on sports clubs. The Ministry is authorized to dissolve a club's board of directors if it commits "practices or actions incompatible with public order, public morality or regulations." Al-Safa was also fined 200,000 Saudi riyals (around $53,325), coupled with a ban on the public attending the next five home matches.

This case has been underway at a time when Saudi Arabia is spending billions of dollars staging major sporting events in an attempt to modernize its image, making sport one of the pillars of its Vision 2030 economic diversification program, placing soccer at the heart of this strategy.

In October 2021, the English Premier League announced the sale of Newcastle United to a consortium of companies led by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF). On October 31, 2023, the kingdom announced its bid to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup, which it is well on the way to securing after Australia, the only other potential candidate, withdrew from the race.

The state religion in Saudi Arabia is Sunni Islam, and all citizens are expected to be Muslims. 85-90 percent of the population is said to be Sunni and the rest mainly Shia, with a small minority of Christians (including Filipino workers). 

Imam Ali (656-661 CE), the subject of the chant which incited the fans' imprisonment, is revered in Shia Islam as the first Imam, contrasting with his recognition as the fourth caliph in Sunni tradition.

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