Home News Netflix show wins Saudi creator praise, but also jail sentence

Netflix show wins Saudi creator praise, but also jail sentence

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From the outside, the past few years appear to be the high point of Abdulaziz Almouzaini’s career.

As head of an animation studio in Saudi Arabia, he signed a five-year contract with Netflix in 2020. His satirical cartoon series, Masameer, which was soon broadcast around the world and has been likened to a Saudi version of South Park, was soon being broadcast around the world. Just months ago, Mr. Almouzaini was publicly hailed as one of the homegrown talents shaping the conservative Islamic kingdom’s nascent entertainment industry as it gradually loosens its grip on the world’s most conservative Islamic kingdom.

Behind the scenes, however, he is being tried in an opaque national security court, with Saudi prosecutors accusing him of promoting extremism through cartoons and social media posts, seeking to ensure he will spend the rest of his life in prison or on a travel ban.

Almouzaini, a father of three who holds dual U.S. and Saudi citizenship, recently described his plight in a video, pleading with Saudi leadership to intervene and saying he was awaiting a final ruling from the Saudi Supreme Court.

“I may have to bear the consequences of what happens next and I am ready for it,” he said in the 18-minute video, which was filmed at his home in the Saudi capital.

The video, posted on his social media account late last month and deleted the same day, shows Mouzaini, who has a black beard with graying edges, speaking in front of a wall covered with colorful sticky notes.

“I haven’t committed any crime in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I haven’t even run a red light.”

Saudi authorities have jailed hundreds of citizens during a crackdown on dissent that began in 2017. Still, Mr. Almouzaini’s video was striking because he appeared to be completely in the Saudi leadership’s good graces — attending government-sponsored events and accepting Wonderful Articles With national support Media coverageDespite facing serious charges, he has not been jailed, although he is banned from leaving the country.

His story is the starkest example of the duality of the new Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 38, Open the Kingdom While deepening social Political oppressionIn Al-Mozaini’s case, these two trends are playing out simultaneously, exposing a deep dissonance at the heart of the kingdom’s transformation.

The New York Times confirmed that the case has been heard by the Special Criminal Court in Riyadh. Last year, Almouzaini was found guilty of supporting extremist ideas, among other charges. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison and subsequently banned from traveling outside Saudi Arabia for 13 years. The Court of Appeal upheld his conviction and prison sentence this year, while extending his travel ban to 30 years.

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

In a statement to The New York Times, the State Department said it had been following Almouzaini’s case, adding: “Our embassies and consulates are committed to ensuring that American citizens abroad receive fair and transparent legal processes.”

The prosecutors’ charges relate to television content Almouzaini produced and social media posts he made a decade ago, before public discourse in Saudi Arabia was much restricted.

“I never thought it would come to this,” Mr. Almouzaini said in the video. “Especially considering that there were people and officials — I’m grateful to them but I won’t mention them — who assured me that this issue didn’t deserve this, that I had to be patient and that it would be resolved through the bureaucratic process.”

Since Prince Mohammed came to power in 2015, he has significantly relaxed social restrictions in Saudi Arabia. Lifting the ban on women drivingdisarm the religious police and invest heavily in new areas, e.g. Entertainment and TourismHe also presided over a massive political crackdown that 2018 murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi — a columnist in The Washington Post who was critical of the monarchy — was stationed in Istanbul by Saudi agents.

Prince Mohammed’s advisers and supporters have sometimes argued that heavy-handed policy is necessary to move the country through periods of turbulent change. But Mr. Almouzaini’s case and others like it raise questions about how Saudi Arabia plans to foster the arts, creativity and entrepreneurship — key components of the prince’s plan — while scaling back free speech.

“Masameer” started streaming on YouTube more than a decade ago when cinemas were virtually banned and filmmaking was largely done underground.

The show is silly, dark and sometimes vulgar, criticizing life in the conservative Islamic kingdom through its deliberately absurd plot.

exist An interview in 2017“We try to satirize a lot of social issues, from the way the government works to the way certain beliefs spread in society,” said Malik Nejer, co-founder of the show.

“We even laugh at ourselves sometimes,” he added.

From its early days, Masameer’s ideology was socially liberal, with storylines mocking the classism, discrimination against women, and religious restrictions that severely limited life in Saudi Arabia at the time.

The country has undergone rapid transformation under Prince Mohammed’s leadership, and the government appears to have welcomed his work, even as Muzaini faces trial at the same time.

Last year, after he was convicted and sentenced, he Attend the party The celebrations, organized by state entities, saw officials fete Saudi creators with pomp and circumstance. Since 2021, Riyadh Avenue, a government-run entertainment center in the Saudi capital, has hosted events and theme park rides themed after the “Masameer” characters. A few months ago, while continuing to appeal the ruling, Mr. Almuzaini participated in a show on Saudi state television to discuss the kingdom’s film industry.

This episode celebrates the spread of Saudi content to international audiences. The voiceover announced“We will tell our own stories and export them to the world through our narratives.”

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

According to Mr. Almouzaini’s video, some of the charges he faces are related to an episode of the Netflix spinoff series “Masamil County,” released in 2021.

The episode tells the story of a wealthy, pampered, and lonely man named Bandar, who suddenly has a late-night craving for ice cream. He goes in search of ice cream, gets beaten, dumped in the desert, and taken in by a group of jihadists. He joins the Islamic State terrorist group, and at the end of the episode, a helicopter he’s riding in explodes, ejecting him into a dreamlike setting where he finds a deluxe ice cream cone.

The series openly disparages jihadists, portraying Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as People who died in 2019plays a mean man with a group of women.

But Saudi officials hunting Mouzaini interpreted it to mean, “If you go fight ISIS and die like Bandar did in the ice cream incident, you will go to heaven,” Mouzaini said in the video. “I don’t know how they interpreted it that way.”

In the video, Mr Almouzaini pleaded for Prince Mohammed’s help and said he had pursued his case through various avenues before going public.

Almouzaini’s problems began in 2021, when officials from a Saudi media agency began investigating him and his animation studio, alleging regulatory violations, including “support for terrorism and homosexuality,” Almouzaini said in the video.

What started as a regulatory matter turned into a criminal trial. In addition to complaints about the content of “Masameer,” prosecutors also cited social media posts by Mr. Almuzaini between 2010 and 2014, he said in the video.

At the end of the video, Almuzaini said that he recently had to close his animation studio and lay off employees, but he still believed in the “wise government” of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and was confident that he would get his rights.

After the video was deleted, Mr Almouzaini appeared to remain free. He continued Post on social mediaincluding Tuesday.

in a Second videoMouzaini’s post on Sunday stressed his loyalty to the Saudi kingdom and its rulers, adding that he would not want to be anywhere else.

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

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