(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should drop charges and release the editor of the Free Saudi Liberals website for violating his right to freedom of expression on matters of religion and religious figures. Prosecutors have charged Ra’if Badawi under the 2007 Anti-Cybercrime law, alleging that his website “infringes on religious values” by providing a platform for open debate of views on religion and religious figures.
The prosecution’s evidence includes five website postings by Badawi and anonymous website members critical of Saudi religious authorities and two postings regarding theological questions, the charge sheet says. If convicted, Badawi faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Saudi Riyals (US$800,000).
“The Saudi government is fighting a losing battle if it thinks it can stifle the exchange of ideas on religion by jailing those who express their views,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government has no business policing Saudis’ religious views.”
Saudi security forces stopped Badawi and arrested him on June 17, 2012, as he was driving in Jeddah, his wife and a close associate told Human Rights Watch. On the website, Badawi and others had declared May 7 a day for Saudi liberals, hoping to garner interest in open discussion about the differences between popular religion and politicized religion, said Su’ad al-Shammari, secretary general of the website.
Badawi had been living away from his home for months to avoid a run-in with the police, although he did not believe he was formally wanted for arrest, Badawi told Human Rights Watch in March.
On March 18, Shaikh Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, a well-known conservative cleric, issued a religious ruling declaring Badawi an “unbeliever … and apostate who must be tried and sentenced according to what his words require.” Al-Barrak listed five pieces of what he described as evidence, such as Badawi’s alleged “claim that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists are all equal,” and Badawi’s alleged “exposure of the inconveniences of the month of Ramadan.” Al-Barrak also dismissed the possibility of an open discussion of such matters, saying that even if these were not Badawi’s own opinions but an “account of the words of others, this is not allowed unless accompanied by a repudiation” of such words.
Saudi authorities have long harassed Badawi with politically motivated prosecutions for his debate of religious views, Human Rights Watch said. In March 2008, prosecutors arrested and detained Badawi for questioning, also for setting up his website, but released him after one day. Badawi left the country after being formally charged in May 2008. He returned when prosecutors apparently decided not to pursue his case, he told Human Rights Watch. Nevertheless, as a result of the charges, the government in 2009 barred Badawi from foreign travel and froze his business interests, depriving him of a source of income, he told Human Rights Watch.
Badawi had told Human Rights Watch that since al-Barrak’s March religious ruling, he feared for his life and for the lives of his family. His father and a brother have publicly distanced themselves from him and declared him an unbeliever. The charge sheet names his father as having initiated the legal action against Badawi, also including a charge of “filial disobedience,” although no instances of such disobedience are included in the charge sheet. A person close to Badawi told Human Rights Watch that Badawi has not seen his father in years.
Members of Badawi’s wife’s family also began agitating against him, Badawi told Human Rights Watch, leading his wife and three children to leave the country. Badawi had learned that his wife’s relatives were filing suit in a Jeddah court to have him forcibly divorced from his wife as an apostate, and thus not allowed to marry a Muslim woman under Islamic law. His wife and children remain abroad.
International human rights law protects the right to freedom of expression. International standards only allow content-based restrictions in extremely narrow circumstances, such as cases of slander or libel against private individuals or speech that threatens national security. Restrictions must be clearly defined, specific, necessary, and proportionate to the threat to the interest protected.
The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties, the UN Human Rights Committee said in its 2011 General Comment No. 34 regarding permissible limits on freedom of expression. Regarding restrictions for the protection of public morals, the committee in its 1993 General Comment No. 22 on freedom of religion observed “that the concept of morals derives from many social, philosophical and religious traditions; consequently, limitations... for the purpose of protecting morals must be based on principles not deriving exclusively from a single tradition.”
“Instead of protecting the lives and freedoms of Saudi citizens, Saudi authorities allow the abuse of their legal system to persecute those with critical views,” Wilcke said.