The editor of a social website in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for insulting Islam and violating the Kingdom’s anti-cybercrime law. Raif Badawi, the online editor of the “Free Saudi Liberals” forum was also found guilty of “parental disobedience” (a crime in Saudi Arabia) which resulted the criminal court adding another three months to his sentence.
Badawi had left the country in 2008 after the initial charges of insulting Islam were filed against him. After being told that the charges were dropped, he returned, only to be barred from leaving the country again. His business assets were also frozen at the time.
Badawi was moderating a forum that promotes “liberal thinking” by encouraging participants to voice their opinion about religion in the Kingdom.
Charges of apostasy – a crime in the Kingdom that carries the death penalty – that were pending against Badawi were dropped after Badawi testified in court that he is a Muslim. According to his lawyer, the court required Badawi to recite the Shehadeh, the Muslim declaration of faith, in order to drop to apostasy charges.
Badawi founded the online platform in 2008 “to encourage debate on religious and political matters in Saudi Arabia,” according to Human Rights Watch. The group also said that the judge affirmed that “liberalism is akin to unbelief.”
Badawi has been in prison for a year already on charges of cybercrime and disobeying his father. The latter charges stem from numerous confrontations Badawi has had with this father. At a hearing last year, the judge prevented Badawi’s lawyer from representing him.
“This incredibly harsh sentence for a peaceful blogger makes a mockery of Saudi Arabia’s claims that it supports reform and religious dialogue,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Human Rights Watch relates that “On March 18, 2012, the well-known cleric Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak issued a religious ruling declaring Badawi an “unbeliever… and apostate who must be tried and sentenced according to what his words require.” Al-Barrak claimed that Badawi had 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’s wife and children relocated out of the Kingdom last year to avoid backlash against the family.
Human Rights Watch reports that Badawi has 30 days to appeal the verdict.