600 lashes and 7 years: Saudi blogger sentenced for ‘insulting Islam’

600 lashes and 7 years: Saudi blogger sentenced for ‘insulting Islam’
A court has convicted an activist of violating Saudi Arabia’s anti-cybercrime law and sentenced him to 600 lashes and 7 years in prison. Human Rights Watch said the verdict “makes a mockery” of claims that the country supports religious dialogue.

The Criminal Court in Jeddah found Raif Badawi, the founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, guilty of insulting Islam through his online forum, created in 2008 to discuss the role of religion in Saudi Arabia freely. 

Last year a prominent cleric issued a religious ruling declaring Badawi an “unbeliever… and apostate who must be tried and sentenced according to what his words require.” Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak claimed that Badawi allegedly said that “Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists are all equal,” and that even if these were not Badawi’s own opinions but “an account of the words of others, this is not allowed unless accompanied by a repudiation” of such words.  

Badawi has been held in Jeddah’s Buraiman prison since his arrest in June of last year. A recommended charge of apostasy, which carries the death penalty, was dropped only after Badawi assured the court that he is a Muslim.

“This incredibly harsh sentence for a peaceful blogger makes a mockery of Saudi Arabia’s claims that it supports reform and religious dialogue,” deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said.

“A man who wanted to discuss religion has already been locked up for a year and now faces 600 lashes and seven years in prison,” Nadim Houry noted.

Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, told US-based rights group that the blogger was sentenced to five years in prison for insulting Islam, as well as violating provisions of Saudi Arabia’s 2007 anti-cybercrime law. The judge added two more years to Badawi’s term for insulting Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, in his TV interviews and on social media sites. His website was subsequently shut down.

During a hearing at the Jeddah Criminal Court in December, the judge prevented Badawi’s lawyer from representing his client. Judge Muhammad al-Marsoom warned Badawi that he could face the death penalty if he did not “repent to God” and give up his liberal beliefs. After Badawi refused, the judge recommended a trial for apostasy and referred the case to the Jeddah Public Court, which tries more serious crimes. However, in January the Public Court refused to hear the case. Eventually judicial authorities transferred it back to the Criminal Court.

Badawi’s conflict with the Saudi authorities started in 2008 when he was charged with “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam”. The blogger then left the country and came back only when prosecutors dropped the charges. The activist told Human Rights Watch that in 2009 he was barred from traveling abroad and his business interests were frozen, depriving him of a source of income. Fearing repercussions, his wife and children moved overseas in 2012.

Although King Abdullah has pushed for reforms to the legal system, Saudi lawyers say that in reality conservatives in the judiciary system have resisted implementing the changes.

“King Abdullah has received praise for fostering dialogue and an exchange of ideas between religions, but it appears that Saudi authorities’ tolerance for open discussion stops at Saudi borders,” Houry said.