November 25, 2014
Saudi Arabia Goes After Its Twitter Critics Using Anti-Cybercrime Law

Saudi Arabia is cracking down on citizens who criticize the regime on Twitter, by using a vague law to prosecute them. Human Rights Watch reports that three lawyers were convicted of criticizing the justice ministry, and were sentenced to terms of between five and eight years in prison. A women's rights activist was also detained by police in connection with tweets that officials say criticized religious officials.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch Middle East and North African Director, told Al Jazeera,

"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."
The Saudi government is using a 2007 anti-cybercrime law to prosecute citizens. Article six of the law makes it illegal to "produce something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network."

Human Rights Watch says that Saudi Arabia should change the law to remove or amend provisions that allow officials to prosecute individuals for online expression that does not incite violence. None of the tweets that landed the lawyers in prison were of a violent nature. Two criticized the Saudi Justice Ministry. A third made the comment, "… $5 billion to Egypt while at the same time Saudi women clean bathrooms."

The indictment against the lawyers charged them with "attacking the Sharia judicial system and its independence, and undermining its authority by interfering in the [disciplinary] proceedings of Judge Mohammed Al Abdulkareem."

Saudi Arabia has been cracking down on other government critics, as well. Waleed Abu al-Khair, also a lawyer, was sentenced to 15 years in prison last July, after he criticized the Saudi government's human rights abuses in social media, and in interviews. Su`ad al-Shammari, described by Human Rights Watch as a "liberal activist," was arrested on October 28, reportedly for tweets that condemned Saudi Arabian laws that prohibit women from driving cars.

Al-Shammari is the co-founder of an online discussion forum with another liberal activist, Raif Badawi. Saudi authorities arrested Badawi in 2012. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes.

Another human rights activist, Mikhlif al-Shammari, was sentenced to two years in prison and 200 lashes earlier this month. His "crime" was visiting Shia leaders. Saudi Arabia is dominated by the rival Sunni faction of Islam. He had earlier been convicted of "sowing discord" because of his criticism of Saudi officials in his online writing.

The group Reporters Without Borders earlier this month criticized Saudi Arabia for its crackdown on cyber activists. According to Middle East Eye, the group released a statement, which read, in part,

"We urge the authorities to reverse these decisions, to release all the netizens and human rights activists who are being denied their right to freedom of expression and information, and to abandon all judicial proceedings against them."
The crackdown on Twitter and other online activists is just the latest controversy to involve Saudi Arabia. As reported in the Inquisitr, a month ago, Saudi officials warned women to not protest the driving ban, saying they would punish women who drive, as well as the men who allow them to do so.

Saudi Arabia is a conservative society that activists are trying to modernize. In the short term, it appears that the Saudi government is winning, but whether it is the government, or the forces of change that win in the long term, remains to be seen.