Rights groups have said the purge, which has seen some 320 people called in for questioning and over 159 people detained, has raised human rights concerns.
Saudi Arabia has released 23 of the 200-or-so powerful individuals detained since November on corruption charges after they reached deals with the government, Okaz newspaper reported on Tuesday.
The report did not name those involved in what appeared to be the first large-scale release since the royals, business people and government officials were detained in a crackdown spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The suspects have been held at Riyadh’s luxurious Ritz Carlton hotel since early November and told to hand over assets and cash in exchange for their freedom. Okaz said more detainees would be released in the coming days and trial proceedings would begin soon for those who continue to deny the charges against them.
Saudi authorities see the settlements not as blackmail but as an obligation to reimburse money taken illegally from the world’s top oil producer over several decades. Video posted on social media showed a smiling Saoud al-Daweesh, the former chief executive of Saudi Telecom, telling well-wishers he had been treated decently.
“Private Affairs (a unit of the Royal Court) brought us a full lamb dish day and night. They treated us well and did a good job,” he said. Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.
On Sunday, Okaz said Riyadh freed a former minister and a former head of a major company after they struck monetary settlements in exchange for their freedom. The freed men are former Finance Minister Ibrahim Abdulaziz al-Assaf and former chief executive of Saudi Telecom Saud al-Daweesh, a member of Daweesh’s tribe said..”The deals struck between Daweesh, Assaf and the royal court include handing over assets held abroad, properties in the United Arab Emirates, private jets, yachts and jewellery,” the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. The move comes as the Wall Street Journal reported that Riyadh has demanded at least $6 billion from Prince al-Waleed bin Talal to free him from detention at the Ritz.
The price being demanded is among the highest sought for those who have been arrested, the newspaper reported, citing people familiar with the matter. Alwaleed, 62, is the 57th-richest person in the world, with an $18 billion fortune according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Last month the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, launched a wide-ranging crackdown on dozens of elites, ostensibly to tackle corruption. Experts say it was also a way of consolidating his grip on power. Most of those detained have struck monetary settlements in exchange for their freedom.
Rights groups have said the purge, which has seen some 320 people called in for questioning and over 159 people detained, has raised human rights concerns. Head of the London-based ALQST Saudi rights group, Yahya Assiri, said that authorities have failed to guarantee the detainees their right to due process.
“The releases have been carried without a legal basis for their arrests and without informing the public the reasons behind the arrests in the first place,” Assiri said. “This confirms that we do not live in a state that respects rule of law but that we live in the state of one man,” he added.