The courts of Saudi Arabia have sentenced a 28-year-old man to 2,000 lashes and 10 years jail for declaring on Twitter that he was an atheist. As if this weren’t enough, he has also been fined approximately $5,500. According to the Independent, Saudi Arabian religious authorities found over 600 posts declaring the man’s atheism, denying Quranic verses and calling various prophets liars. The posts were discovered by what a Saudi newspaper described as the “religious police,” and seemed to refer to a specific unit that monitors social media. Upon being confronted with the tweets, the man refused to repent, standing by his stated positions on both atheism and his disdain for Islam. He reportedly claimed that his statements were only of personal belief and that he was within his rights to express himself in this way.
While he may be correct morally, it would seem that he has no such right under Saudi law. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Saudi Arabia continues to “arbitrarily arrest” non-violent dissidents. These arrests are enabled under a tranche of security legislation and royal decrees issued by the late King Abdullah in 2014. Supposedly designed to respond to the growing threat of terrorism, the blanket legislation appears to have empowered the law enforcement and security agencies of Saudi Arabia to arrest any kind of dissident whatsoever. Atheism, for example, has been legislated as a “terrorist” offense, as well as almost any other kind of protest or political dissent. The first article of these provisions defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”.
While Saudi Arabia has never been known for its tolerance of political or social criticism, the new laws go a step further in basically defining any form of dissent as terrorism. This allows for much harsher penalties, and may explain the recent rash of executions that have taken place in the kingdom. It would appear that the generalized anxiety about terrorism, especially in the Middle East, has provided something of a golden opportunity for Saudi security forces attempting to mop up noisy or embarrassing dissidents.
Saudi Arabia has been under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons recently. The execution of Ali Al-Nimr, a Shia cleric, along with a large number of other prisoners brought down world condemnation. Saudi Arabia’s ruthlessly fought proxy war in the Yemen against Iranian-backed armed groups has caused outcry, with Human Rights Watch and other organizations leveling multiple accusations of serious war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and the use of cluster bombs. All this coincided, rather unfortunately, with reports of a Saudi official being given a place on one of the UN’s human rights committees.
It had been hoped that with the passing of King Abdullah, reforms might take place in Saudi Arabia. King Salman, the new king of Saudi Arabia, did in fact begin his reign by making some seemingly significant gestures. In the early part of his reign, King Salman made some reforms in the areas of votes for women, women and driving, and some other minor regulations. This led some commentators to become enthused with the idea of a new and “liberal” Saudi Arabia. Seasoned Saudi watchers, however, were unconvinced that there would be any fundamental change in the kingdom’s ultra-conservative, Salafist Islam-driven law. It would appear that multiple executions, continual accusations of flagrant abuses of human rights, and the persistence with which floggings and long prison sentences are handed out for what, in the West, would be trivial or non-existent crimes would seem to belie the idea that Saudi Arabia is marching along the road to modern democracy.
[Photo by Getty Images/Handout]