Saudi Arabia sentences producer to 13 years in prison over Netflix series

From the outside, the last few years seemed like the pinnacle of Abdulaziz Almuzaini's career.

As the head of an animation studio in Saudi Arabia, he signed a five-year deal with Netflix in 2020. A sarcastic cartoon franchise he helped create, “Masameer,” likened to a Saudi version of “South Park,” was soon streaming to audiences around the world. And as the conservative Islamic kingdom relaxed, Mr. Almuzaini was publicly celebrated, until a few months ago, as one of the homegrown talents shaping its nascent entertainment industry.

Behind the scenes, however, he was on trial in an opaque national security court, while Saudi prosecutors, who accused him of promoting extremism through the cartoon series and social media posts, sought to ensure he would spend the rest of his life in prison or under a travel ban.

Mr Almuzaini, a US-Saudi citizen and father of three, recently detailed his plight in a video pleading with the Saudi leadership to intervene, saying he was awaiting a final ruling from the kingdom’s Supreme Court.

“I can handle the consequences of what happens next, and I am ready,” he said in the 18-minute video, which he said he shot at his home in the Saudi capital.

The video was posted to his social media accounts late last month and was deleted the same day. In it, Mr Almuzaini, sporting a black beard that was graying at the edges, spoke in front of a wall covered in colorful Post-it notes.

“I have not committed a single crime in the kingdom,” he said. “I have not even run a red light.”

Saudi authorities have jailed hundreds of citizens in a crackdown on dissent that began in 2017. But the video of Mr. Almuzaini was shocking because he appeared to be in full favor with the Saudi leadership, appearing at government-hosted events and receiving rave reviews in state-backed media. Despite the serious charges, he has not been jailed, though he has been barred from leaving the country.

His story is the clearest example yet of the duality of the new Saudi Arabia, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 38, opens the kingdom socially while stepping up political repression. In the case of Mr Almuzaini, those two trends have played out simultaneously, exposing a deep dissonance at the heart of the kingdom’s transformation.

The New York Times was able to verify that a trial had taken place at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, where Mr. Almuzaini was convicted last year of advocating extremist ideology, among other charges. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, followed by a 13-year ban on travel outside Saudi Arabia. An appeals court upheld his conviction and prison term this year, extending his travel ban to 30 years.

The Saudi government’s Center for International Communication did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Almuzaini did not respond to a request for an interview. His lawyer could not be reached. Netflix declined to comment.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement to The Times that it was monitoring Mr. Almuzaini's case, adding: “Our embassies and consulates seek to ensure that U.S. citizens abroad are subject to a fair and transparent legal process.”

Prosecutors’ charges related to television content produced by Mr. Almuzaini and social media posts he wrote a decade ago, when space for public debate in Saudi Arabia was less limited.

“I never thought it would get to this stage,” Mr. Almuzaini said in his video. “Especially since there are people and officials, who I am grateful to but will not name, who reassured me that the matter was not worth all this and to be patient and that it will be resolved bureaucratically.”

Since Prince Mohammed’s rise to power in 2015, he has significantly loosened social restrictions in Saudi Arabia, ending a ban on women driving, weakening the religious police and investing heavily in new sectors such as entertainment and tourism. He has also presided over a widespread political crackdown, which peaked with the 2018 murder of Saudi author Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist who wrote critically about the monarchy in The Washington Post, by Saudi agents in Istanbul.

Prince Mohammed's advisers and supporters sometimes argue that an iron fist is needed to push the state through a period of tumultuous change. But Mr Almuzaini's case, among others like his, raises questions about how the kingdom intends to cultivate art, creativity and entrepreneurship, key components of the prince's plans, while curtailing freedom of expression.

“Masameer” began on YouTube more than a decade ago, when movie theaters were effectively banned and filmmaking was largely an underground activity.

Through deliberately absurd plots, the series — funny, dark and at times vulgar — criticizes aspects of life in the conservative Islamic kingdom.

In a 2017 interview, one of the show's creators, Malik Nejer, said, “We try to poke fun at a lot of social issues, from the way government works to the way certain beliefs are spread in society.”

“Sometimes we even make fun of ourselves,” he added.

From its earliest years, “Masameer”'s ideology was socially liberal, with plots ridiculing the classism, discrimination against women, and religious restrictions that heavily characterized life in Saudi Arabia at the time.

During the country's rapid transformation under Prince Mohammed, the government appeared to welcome Mr Almuzaini's work, even though he was on trial at the same time.

Last year, after he was convicted and sentenced, he attended a state-run gala where officials celebrated Saudi creators. Since 2021, Riyadh Boulevard, a government-run entertainment complex in the kingdom’s capital, has hosted themed events and rides designed around “Masameer” characters. And a couple of months ago, as he continued to appeal the sentences, Mr. Almuzaini appeared on a Saudi state-run television program to discuss the kingdom’s film industry.

The episode celebrated the spread of Saudi content to international audiences, with a voiceover declaring, “We will tell our stories, ourselves, and export them with our narrative to the world.”

Several TV series and two films from the “Masameer” franchise are still available on Netflix in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Almuzaini’s animation studio, Myrkott, is midway through a five-year partnership with the streaming service, which it signed in 2020.

According to Mr. Almuzaini’s video, some of the allegations against him were related to an episode of “Masameer County,” a 2021 Netflix spin-off series.

The episode tells the story of a rich, spoiled, lonely man named Bandar who develops a craving for ice cream late at night. He goes looking for it, only to be beaten, abandoned in the desert, and taken in by a gang of jihadists. He joins the Islamic State terrorist group, and at the end of the episode, a helicopter he is riding in explodes, catapulting him into a dreamlike scene where he finds a sumptuous ice cream cone.

The episode is openly offensive towards jihadists and depicts the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in 2019, as a shady man with a harem of women.

But Saudi officials pursuing Mr. Almuzaini interpreted it to mean that “if you went to fight with the Islamic State and died like Bandar in the ice cream episode, you will go to heaven,” Mr. Almuzaini said in his video. “I don’t know how they read it that way.”

In the video, Mr Almuzaini asked Prince Mohammed for help, saying he had tried to resolve his case in various ways before making it public.

Mr. Almuzaini’s troubles began in 2021, when an official from a Saudi media authority began investigating him and his animation studio for regulatory violations that included “supporting terrorism and homosexuality,” Mr. Almuzaini said in the video.

What started out as a regulatory matter has turned into a criminal case. In addition to complaints about the content of “Masameer,” prosecutors have pointed to social media posts that Mr. Almuzaini made from 2010 to 2014, he said in the video.

Mr Almuzaini concluded the video by saying that he had recently had to close his animation studio and lay off his employees. But he still believes in the kingdom's “wise government” and is confident it will get its rights, he added.

After the video was deleted, Mr. Almuzaini appeared to remain free. He continued to post on social media, including on Tuesday.

In a second video, posted on Sunday, Mr Almuzaini stressed his loyalty to the Saudi kingdom and its rulers, adding that he did not want to go anywhere else.

“I will live in this country,” he said. “And God willing, I will die in this country.”

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