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(Beirut) – The head of the Saudi judiciary, Salih bin Humaid, should stop all criminal proceedings against Fahd al-Juhani, a Saudi journalist charged with defaming a local official, Human Rights Watch said today. Al-Juhani had written about what he claimed were attempts by the official, a health inspector, to extort money from shopkeepers in Huta, a town south of Riyadh.

There have been five court sessions since December 2010 in which the judge refused to cede jurisdiction. The next session is due in October 2011, and al-Juhani remains at liberty.

“Jailing journalists can only give Saudi Arabia a bad name,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And silencing reporters who try to expose corruption sends the wrong message to Saudi officials and the public.”

Al-Juhani, an editor at Al-Watan newspaper, published the article, “Health Inspector Extorts from Shopkeepers in Huta Bani Tamim,” under a pseudonym in July 2009 on the electronic news website Al-Weeam. Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the article, which is no longer available on the website.

Al-Juhani accuses the head of al-Huta’s environmental health section of trying to pressure more than 200 shop owners into paying 5,000 Saudi riyals (US$1,333) each as a contribution to the annual banquet the municipality gives to mark the end of the fasting month Ramadan. The article says that the health inspector abused his position by threatening to impose fines against the shop owners if they failed to comply. Al-Juhani told Human Rights Watch that his sources were shop owners, a high municipal official, and a local journalist.

Al-Juhani also told Human Rights Watch that the health official filed a complaint against al-Juhani, asking the court to punish him and award official damages for harm suffered. The prosecutor, on December 6, 2010, charged al-Juhani with criminal defamation. Al-Juhani should not be criminally prosecuted for what he wrote, regardless of the truth of his allegations, because of the chilling effect of criminal sanctions on peaceful expression, Human Rights Watch said. If the official considers the article defamatory, he should file a civil suit for compensation for any claimed harm to his reputation. In considering civil suits, Saudi courts should consider the importance of freedom of expression in respecting the right of journalists to write about public figures.

Saudi Arabia transferred jurisdiction over the media from the country’s court system, which is based on Sharia law, to the Ministry of Culture and Information, which is authorized to rule on violations of the Press And Publications Law, under Royal Decree 1700/Mim Ba of March 15, 2005.

The electronic news website Masak published an article on April 4, 2010, quoting a source in the Justice Ministry as saying that “internet cases are considered cases of electronic media and publications” and would thus not fall within the jurisdiction of Sharia courts. The spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Information, Abd al-Rahman al-Hazza’, on July 12, 2010, confirmed this to the official Saudi Arabian News Agency.

Al-Juhani told Human Rights Watch that despite these instructions, Judge ‘Adil al-Matrudi of the (Sharia) Buraida Criminal Court in Qasim province north of Riyadh insisted on trying the case, saying, “only Sharia rules in this country.”

Saudi Arabia has no written criminal law defining defamation or any attendant penalties. Defining the elements of a crime and any penalty remains up to the individual judge’s interpretation of Sharia precepts. In addition to the country’s Sharia courts, there are executive tribunals for labor, commercial, and media disputes under the respective ministries. Although the tribunal judging press violations is not an independent court, in several cases Saudi journalists preferred that this executive body rather than Sharia courts review matters relating to the media. Sharia courts in the 2005 and 2006 have tried cases for criminal defamation in media publications before ministerial instructions transferred them to the Culture and Information Ministry.

“It would be preposterous if any official accused of wrongdoing could simply ask the courts to jail his accuser,” Wilcke said. “One role

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