'Blasphamous' tweets land Saudi man 10-year sentence, 2,000 lashes

Saudi authorities often prosecute views that challenge the state's version of Wahhabi Islam. New laws that equate atheism with terrorism help criminalize free speech, activists say. 

Salvatore Di Nolfi/ Keystone via AP
Ensaf Haidar, the wife of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, speaks during the 8th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in Geneva, Switzerland on February 23, 2016. Saudi Arabia has been consistently criticized by human rights groups for criminalizing free speech, particularly about religion.

A 28 year-old Saudi man accused of questioning religious scholars and God's existence in hundreds of tweets has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, 2,000 lashes, and a $5,300 fine, Saudi media reported Saturday.

According to Al-Watan, the man did not repent for tweets that challenged the country's official Wahhabi version of Islam. The Hai'a, the state agency whose religious police help enforce Saudi Arabia's take on Sharia law, claimed to have found over 600 incriminating messages.

The Saudi government typically represses worship from non-Muslims, as well as Muslims from other branches of Islam. Wahhabism, or Salafism, is a conservative Sunni school followed by a slim minority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims: about 3 percent, according to Ed Husain, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. 

Human rights groups have routinely criticized the Saudi government for criminalizing free speech and violating rights of the accused, particularly in cases about religion. In early February, a court overturned the death sentence of Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian refugee poet found guilty of apostasy, and sentenced him to eight years of prison and 1,000 lashes. Mr. Fayadh must also denounce his poetry, which was accused of promoting atheism.

Another popular writer, the blogger Raif Badawi, is serving a 10-year sentence with 1,000 lashes for convictions including insulting religion. 

In 2014, the government enacted new anti-terrorism laws criticized by rights groups for a broad definition of terror, which included atheism, and for giving the interior minister new authority to detain suspects without judicial oversight, increasing the risk they would be tortured. 

According to the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, which took effect in February 2014, acts of terrorism include those which "intended to disturb the public order of the state, or to shake the security of society," or "to insult the reputation of the state or its position," among others. Unlike many countries' definitions, the Saudi law does not specify that the acts must be violent, or intended to induce terror or a policy change. 

The interior minister may also order access to suspects' banking and communications records, forbid suspects from hearing witness against them, and increase the allowed maximum pretrial detention or incommunicado detention to 12 months and 90 days, respectively. 

In March, further regulations categorized atheism as terrorism, since it questions the "fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based."

"Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism," Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East and North Africa director Joe Stork said when the laws were announced in 2014. 

On January 2, 2016, 47 men convicted of terrorism were executed in Saudi prisons. They included popular Shia theologian Nimr al-Nimr, who was convicted of sedition for leading anti-government protests. Mr. Al-Nimr's death set off fierce backlash in majority-Shia Iran, and Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties after protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

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