A Saudi man explores a website on his laptop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on February 11, 2014.

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities are ramping up their crackdown on people who peacefully criticize the government on the Internet. The government should end the crackdown and live up to its obligations to respect free speech.

In late October 2014, three prominent lawyers were convicted of criticizing the Justice Ministry and sentenced to prison terms of between five and eight years. Police also detained a liberal women’s rights activist in connection with tweets that allegedly criticized religious officials and promoted the right of Saudi women to drive.

“These prosecutions show just how sensitive the Saudi authorities have become to the ability of ordinary citizens to voice opinions online that the government considers controversial or taboo,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Instead of pursuing their peaceful online critics, Saudi officials would be better employed in carrying out much-needed reforms.”

Saudi prosecutors and judges are using vague provisions of a 2007 anti-cybercrime law to charge and try Saudi citizens for peaceful tweets and social media comments. Article 6 criminalizes “producing something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network,” and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Saudi Riyals (US$800,000).

The Saudi cabinet should urgently amend the law to revise or strike out vague provisions that allow criminal justice officials to improperly curtail peaceful online expression, Human Rights Watch said.

According to court documents that Human Rights Watch has reviewed, prosecutors based their entire case against the three lawyers – Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan, and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih – on tweets that officials deemed critical of the Justice Ministry. In particular, authorities took exception to comments about the treatment of Judge Mohammed Al Abdulkareem, who faced a disciplinary hearing before the Supreme Judicial Council in 2013 after he allegedly criticized the Justice Ministry on Twitter.

The indictment accused the lawyers, among other charges, of “attacking the Sharia judicial system and its independence, and undermining its authority by interfering in the [disciplinary] proceedings of Judge Mohammed Al Abdulkareem.”

Al-Subaihi faced an additional charge of “interfering in the public policy of the state, which is under the jurisdiction of the king, through criticizing the king’s directives to pay $5 billion to the state of Egypt.” On October 27, 2014, the court convicted him on the second charge and sentenced him to eight years in prison and a 10-year ban on travel outside Saudi Arabia, and prohibited him from writing in social or other media. The judge sentenced both al-Nogaithan and al-Rumaih to five-year prison terms, a seven-year ban on foreign travel, and a blanket ban on writing in regular and social media.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the tweets cited as evidence against the three lawyers, none of which incited violence. One said: “The performance [of the Justice Ministry] is catastrophic, packaged in lies and media fraud unprecedented in the history of Saudi ministries.” Another said: “… the kingdom lives in 2013 but its judiciary lives in the darkness of the middle ages in its processes and management,” and a third commented: “… $5 billion to Egypt while at the same time Saudi women clean bathrooms.”

All three lawyers remain at liberty while they await the outcome of appeals. The Culture and Information Ministry’s legal committee, which by law has jurisdiction over online content, had fined the three lawyers one million riyals ($266,666) each in June 2014 after the Justice Ministry brought a complaint over many of the same tweets.

Saudi authorities have sanctioned other lawyers in 2014 for social media activity, including Waleed Abu al-Khair, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in July solely on account of his peaceful criticism of Saudi human rights abuses in media interviews and on social media. Abu al-Khair had represented clients in court, but the Justice Ministry had repeatedly refused to certify him as a lawyer.

Saudi officials have also targeted activists on similar grounds. Su`ad al-Shammari, a liberal activist, was arrested on October 28 while attending an investigation session at the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution in Jeddah. A Saudi activist with knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that she faces the charge of “insulting the messenger and the hadith” in connection with the 2013 tweets that allegedly criticized religious authorities and called for Saudi women to be allowed to drive cars. Al-Shammari is detained in Jeddah’s Bureiman Prison.

Al-Shammari co-founded a liberal online discussion forum with a prominent liberal activist, Raif Badawi, in 2008 to encourage debate on religious and political matters in Saudi Arabia. Authorities arrested Badawi in 2012 and, following several trials and appeals, a Jeddah court in 2014 convicted him and sentenced him to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.

Another prominent human rights activist, Mikhlif al-Shammari, was convicted by the Khobar Criminal Court on November 3, 2014, and sentenced to two years in prison and 200 lashes for, in part, visiting prominent Shia figures in the eastern province as a goodwill gesture in the Sunni-dominated country. The Specialized Criminal Court had previously convicted him in 2013 in a separate trial on charges of “sowing discord” and criticizing Saudi officials in his online writings, and sentenced him to five years in prison and a 10-year ban on travel abroad.

“Saudi authorities are intimidating, imprisoning, and silencing activists as part of their all-out assault on peaceful criticism, but they are seriously mistaken if they think they can indefinitely block Saudi citizens from using social and other media to push for positive reforms,” Whitson said.