DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A man is given 50 lashes in a public square for “insulting Islam” on a liberal blog. Another is arrested for filming and uploading a woman’s public beheading. Two females are imprisoned and put on trial for writing on Twitter in support of women driving.
These cases have thrust Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights back into the spotlight, with international concern mounting over the limits of free speech in the Arab monarchy.
Human rights activists and lawyers say the cases are part of a sweeping clampdown on dissent that has intensified in Saudi Arabia since the region’s 2011 Arab Spring upheaval. They say acts that offend the country’s religious hard-liners or open up the kingdom to criticism – like the video of the execution of a woman convicted of murdering her stepdaughter – have landed people in jail as a warning to others.
The case of Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old father of three who was flogged this month, has attracted the most attention in recent days, particularly in the aftermath of the deadly attack in Paris against a satirical weekly that caricatured the Prophet Muhammad.
Badawi was arrested in 2012 after writing articles critical of Saudi Arabia’s clerics on his Free Saudi Liberals blog, which has since been shut down. Hard-liners wanted him charged with apostasy, which carries the death sentence in Saudi Arabia, but he was instead found guilty of the lesser charge of insulting Islam.
He was sentenced in May to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes and was fined $266,000. He was scheduled for another round of 50 lashes last Friday, but the flogging was cancelled to allow his wounds to heal, according to Amnesty International.
“If you say that what happened in Paris is an attack on freedom of expression, than you can say what is happening to Raif is an attack on freedom of expression,” said Amnesty’s Saudi researcher Sevag Kechichian.
Just days after the attacks in Paris, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs took part in the huge march that was held there to support free speech and honour the victims. Two days earlier, Badawi was flogged in the Red Sea city of Jiddah.
Activists and lawyers say the kingdom’s strict application of Sharia law against dissent is part of an effort to appease the religious conservatives who are vital supporters in the country’s fight against Sunni extremists.
Badawi’s arrest and flogging were “a gift, let’s put it that way, to the hard-liners,” Kechichian said.
Last year, the kingdom’s senior clerics issued a stern religious edict, or fatwa, against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. The edict gave crucial religious backing to King Abdullah’s efforts to fight the Islamic State as part of a U.S.-led coalition.
Saudi Arabia issued a sweeping counterterrorism law last year and has been trying to deter its citizens from joining extremist groups that want to bring down its Western-allied monarchy.
But critics of the crackdown on dissent point out that public beheadings are also practiced by al-Qaida and IS.
The U.S. State Department and the U.N. high commissioner for human rights have called on Saudi authorities to rescind Badawi’s punishment. The Saudi royal court referred his case in December to Supreme Court judges to review the case.
Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, had no comment on the crackdown and told The Associated Press his ministry has no involvement in the cases.
Saudi lawyers say Sharia law is far from absolute on free-speech issues. There is no written law, for example, on what constitutes insulting Islam or what the punishment should be in cases of political dissent, said Saudi rights lawyer Abdulaziz AlHussan. He said some judges are issuing “extreme punishment, without limitation, without accountability.”
It is unclear whether Saudi authorities will respond to international pressure in Badawi’s case or that of two Saudi women arrested in December after defying a ban on female drivers. The women were charged with inciting public opinion on Twitter and referred to a court established to try terrorism cases, according to their families.
Among others who have run afoul of the authorities is Waleed Abul-Khair, a human rights lawyer who defended Badawi in court. Abul-Khair was found guilty by an anti-terrorism court under the new counterterrorism law of “undermining regime officials,” ”inciting public opinion” and ”insulting the judiciary.” He was ordered to serve 15 years in jail with the possibility of parole after 10 years.
A judge last week stiffened his punishment and ordered he serve the full 15 years after Abul-Khair disputed the court’s jurisdiction to go after peaceful dissidents.
“The current situation is simply that there is a severe case of repression against human rights activists and peaceful political activism,” said Samar Badawi, Abul-Khair’s wife and Raif Badawi’s sister.
“We do not oppose the government and do not want its downfall, but we are calling for civil and political rights, a constitutional monarchy, an elected parliament and an independent, just judiciary,” she told the AP from Jiddah over Skype.