The news that Al-Shehi died on 19 July has shocked Saudis. The illness has not been formally named but some media outlets such as the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh spoke of three weeks of complications resulting from a Covid-19 infection. His family has not provided any details.
Al-Shehi was released on 19 May to general surprise. At the time, RSF was unable to establish the reasons for his release or whether it was conditional. His health deteriorated quickly thereafter. On 26 June, his son Watan published a prayer for recovery while, in a post the same day, his nephew Mohamed reported that he had been in intensive care for more than ten days.
A well-known columnist for the reformist daily Al-Watan, Al-Shehi was dubbed “the proletariat’s writer” by his friend Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist living in self-imposed exile who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Al-Shehi often wrote about poverty and nepotism within the elite, and called for a debate about the major reforms under way in in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested in December 2017 after talking about corruption within the royal court on the Saudi TV channel Rotana’s programme “Ya Hala,” and was sentenced in February 2018 to five years in prison followed by a five-year ban on leaving the country for “insulting the royal court.”
A few months before being murdered, Khashoggi had defended him in various media outlets. “Saleh Al-Shehi is courageous,” he said. “Those who want to be independent and raise awareness go abroad where they can speak freely, but Saleh Al-Shehi committed a suicide by staying and writing articles [in Saudi Arabia].”
“We demand an independent international inquiry under the UN’s aegis to shed all possible light on a possible link between Saleh Al-Shehi’s death and the conditions in which he was held,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “His sudden release two months before he died raises doubts and requires explanations and transparency on the part of the Saudi authorities. If he fell ill in prison, they must assume full responsibility.”
RSF has meanwhile just learned that the political commentator Akl Al-Bahli has been arrested. The arrest occured on 29 April after he offered his condolences when human rights defender Abdullah Al-Hamid died in prison as a result of medical negligence.
Saudi Arabia is ranked 170th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.