A court in Saudi Arabia has decided to proceed with the prosecution of an online activist for apostasy, a charge which carries the death penalty, in what Amnesty International said is a new bid to stifle political and social debate.
On 22 December the General Court in Jeddah had Raif Badawi, 25, sign documents to enable his trial on apostasy charges to go ahead, after his case was passed to it by a District Court on 17 December.
Badawi – who founded “Saudi Arabian Liberals”, a website for political and social debate – has been in detention since June 2012 on charges including “setting up a website that undermines general security” and ridiculing Islamic religious figures.
Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.
“Even in Saudi Arabia where state repression is rife, it is beyond the pale to seek the death penalty for an activist whose only ‘crime’ was to enable social debate online,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty Internationals Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“Raif Badawi’s trial for ‘apostasy’ is a clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives. He is a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Badawi’s trial began in June 2012 in a Jeddah District Court and was rife with irregularities.
According to his lawyer, the original trial judge was replaced by another judge who had previously advocated that Badawi be punished for apostasy. His lawyer has contested the judge’s impartiality in the case.
The charges against Badawi relate to a number of articles, including one he wrote about Valentine’s Day – the celebration of which is prohibited in Saudi Arabia.
He was accused of ridiculing Saudi Arabia’s Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – also known as the religious police – in the conclusion of his article: “Congratulations to us for the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue for teaching us virtue and for its eagerness to ensure that all members of the Saudi public are among the people of paradise”.
The charges against Badawi also mention his failure to remove articles by other people on his website – including one insinuating that the al-Imam Mohamed ibn Saud University had become “a den for terrorists”.
“Articles on Badawi’s website included references to individuals or institutions that some people might have found offensive, but charging him with criminal offences punishable by imprisonment or execution cannot be justified on any level,” said Luther.
“The Saudi Arabian authorities must end their intolerance of people peacefully exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression.”