Charges Violate Precepts of Law, Freedom of Expression
May 13, 2008
Criminalizing speech on grounds that it is insulting might appease some people, but it violates the fundamental human right of free speech. The Saudi government uses these laws primarily to silence its critics.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

Courts in Jeddah should dismiss cases against a Saudi web critic and a Turkish barber charged with “insulting” Islam, an unequivocal violation of freedom of expression protected under international law, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Saudi man used his website to criticize the religious police while the Turkish barber is accused of cursing the name of God.

“Criminalizing speech on grounds that it is insulting might appease some people, but it violates the fundamental human right of free speech,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi government uses these laws primarily to silence its critics.”

On May 5, the prosecution service in Jeddah charged Ra’if Badawi with “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam,” and referred the case to court, asking for a five-year prison sentence and a 3 million riyal (US$800,000) fine. Unknown persons have hacked Badawi’s website multiple times, and have published his phone numbers, work address, and a threat on the hacked site: “Oh you retard, you are in the land of Muhammad, peace be upon him. Underline ‘Muhammad’ with a thousand lines before a thousand swords are put above your neck!” Prosecutors have not investigated the hackers or the death threats against Badawi.

The prosecution service had detained Badawi in March 2008 for one day to interrogate him about his website, which he uses to detail abuses by the Saudi religious police and to question the predominant interpretation of Islam. After being threatened with arrest for his online activities and receiving personal threats of physical harm, Badawi fled Saudi Arabia two weeks ago.

“Saudi assertions of increased freedom of expression ring hollow in light of the systematic silencing of critics who dare to speak their minds publicly,” Whitson said.

In a second case, the Mekka appeals court on May 1 upheld Sabri Bogday’s death sentence issued on March 31, 2008 for “cursing the name of God.” Bogday, a Turkish national who had worked in Jeddah for 11 years as a barber, allegedly insulted God during an argument with a Saudi client and an Egyptian neighbor. Bogday, who did not have a lawyer in court, denied cursing God, but the three judges of the lower court regarded the testimony by the Saudi and the Egyptian witnesses as sufficient proof that Bogday had committed the crime of apostasy, or defection from Islam.

“The charges, conviction, and sentence against Bogday show the dangers of criminalizing speech on the grounds that it’s offensive,” Whitson said. “There’s no good reason to believe that criminal penalties for insulting God or religion either prevent such insults or restore the alleged damage done to the reputation of religion or God.”

Although the existence of blasphemy laws make some forms of insult to religion an offence, human rights bodies have called for their abolition, and as a minimum that they be narrowly defined so they are compatible with international human rights law on free speech. “Cursing God” does not meet this test and should not be a criminal offence, Human Rights Watch said.

Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code, and the crimes of “insulting Islam” or “cursing God” are not precisely defined. Prosecutors and judges in Saudi Arabia frequently attach a criminal charge to an act they consider criminal without citing the legal basis for such a charge. International human rights law requires that the law, in particular one establishing criminal offences, be sufficiently precise to enable an individual to regulate his conduct appropriately.

International human rights law also protects freedom of expression. The government may only ban limited types of speech such as that which immediately and directly incites violence, but the government may not impose criminal sanctions for the expression of thoughts or opinions, merely because they are deemed offensive.

Saudi Arabia frequently convicts persons for alleged insults to religion. Hadi al-Mutif, who belongs to the minority Isma’ili creed in Shia Islam, remains on death row for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad with two words in 1993; a court convicted teacher Muhammad al-Suhaimi in 2004 of insulting religion for his unorthodox views expressed in a classroom; teacher Muhammad al-Harbi was found guilty of blasphemy in 2005; and a different court charged Rabah al-Quwai’i with apostasy for internet writings in 2005.