A Saudi court has sentenced a high school chemistry teacher to more than three years in prison and 750 lashes for talking to his pupils about his views on a number of current topics, such as Christianity, Judaism and the causes of terrorism.
In Qassim province, north of Riyadh, the prosecution department pressed blasphemy charges against Muhammad al-Harbi, labeling the teacher an “apostate,” after his students and fellow teachers filed legal complaints against him. The judge in the case, `Abdullah Dakhil, reportedly accused the teacher of “trying to sow doubt in a student’s creed.” On Saturday, a court in Bukairia banned him from teaching and sentenced him to 40 months in prison and public flogging of 750 lashes.
“Despite recent education reforms, the Saudi government is imprisoning schoolteachers for having open discussions with their students,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “As long as schoolteachers face persecution for doing their job, Saudi children will lose out.”
Al-Harbi’s case is not an isolated instance of imprisoning teachers for expressing their views. In March 2004, a General Court in Riyadh banned Muhammad al-Sahimi, a former teacher in middle school and high school, from teaching and sentenced him to three years in prison and 300 lashes, also for expressing his views in a classroom. The court found him guilty of endorsing allegedly un-Islamic sexual, social and religious practices. The Saudi deputy minister of defense and aviation, Prince `Abd al-Rahman bin `Abd al-`Aziz, personally involved himself in the matter, initially ordering al-Sahimi’s arrest before any formal charges had been pressed.
The government based its case against al-Sahimi, a teacher of Arabic, on his discussion of the varying concepts of love in poetry. Religion teachers at his school interpreted his words to constitute apostasy. Court documents charged al-Sahimi with declaring listening to music, smoking, adultery, homosexuality and masturbation as permissible under Islam. Al-Sahimi denied the charges.
Both al-Harbi and al-Sahimi had introduced students to issues they encounter in their daily lives. Al-Sahimi broached topics such as sexuality with his students, who were between 13 and 15 years old. In response to the bomb attacks on foreign and Saudi civilians in Riyadh in May 2003, al-Harbi reportedly discussed Christianity, Judaism and the dangers of terrorism with students and posted signs against terrorism around his school. Al-Harbi also encouraged his students to engage in critical thinking to resolve apparent differences of meaning between the text of the Koran and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (sunna). Saudi Arabia asserts that since February 2002 it has begun a review of its curricula, and a number of school textbooks have since been altered.
In August, King Abdullah pardoned four reform advocates jailed by a Riyadh General Court for publicly advocating an overhaul of the education system, among other demands. Judge Sa`ud bin `Abdullah al-`Uthman ruled in al-Sahimi’s case as well as the reformists’. In May, he sentenced one of the reform advocates, Matruk al-Falih, to six years in prison for his “false allegations … and interpretation of violence in Saudi Arabia.” According to court documents, the judge based his ruling on Falih’s comments that those who “take part in acts of violence are the product of the Saudi environment and its schools and their educational policy.”
“Instead of protecting freedom of expression, the Saudi judiciary is imprisoning those who advocate for genuine education reform,” Whitson said.