Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued a royal decree on Monday that punishes citizens who fight in conflicts outside the kingdom, with prison sentences ranging from three to 20 years in jail.
The statement issued by the Saudi Royal Court also says that any Saudi citizen who joins extremist terrorist groups or supports them materially or through incitement would face an even harsher punishment ranging from five to 30 years in jail.
The decree appeared aimed at stemming the flow of Saudi fighters going to Syria. The region’s civil war is believed to have drawn hundreds of young Saudis, worrying some in the kingdom that fighters could return radicalized and turn their weapons on the monarchy.
The statement said it is the Saudi government’s duty to block actions and language that harm public security and stability by exposing the nation to danger and “damaging the status of the kingdom” Islamically, internationally and among Arabs. Saudi Arabia is home to two of Islam’s holiest sites.
Many young Saudi men appear to have been encouraged to join the fight in Syria by influential Saudi clerics who follow the kingdom’s ultraconservative religious Wahhabi doctrine and view the war as a struggle between Syria’s Sunni majority and President Bashar Assad’s Alawite, Shiite-backed minority.
The uprising against Assad has transformed into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which support opposing sides. Foreign fighters and extremists have infiltrated the opposition, triggering infighting that has undermined the rebellion.
Saudi officials and key high-level clerics have largely spoken out against young Saudis joining the fight. While the Saudi government backs some rebel opposition groups in Syria with weapons and aid, officials say Riyadh does not fund al-Qaida-linked groups.
A key Saudi opposition group, Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known in Arabic by its acronym HASEM, said in a statement last week that Saudi rulers are responsible for encouraging extremist ideology in the kingdom in exchange for retaining power and support from the religious establishment. The group said the kingdom secretly tolerates citizens fighting abroad to keep them from carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia.
The decree comes after a sweeping new counterterrorism law came into effect in the kingdom Sunday that activists say targets virtually any criticism of the government.
“This disturbing new law confirms our worst fears – that the Saudi Arabian authorities are seeking legal cover to entrench their ability to crack down on peaceful dissent and silence human rights defenders,” said Said Boumedouha, Middle East Deputy Director at Amnesty International, in a statement.