Assault on the freedom of expression

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes by a Saudi court. His crime: using the freedom afforded by the Internet to express his opinion on the religious authorities in his country. He is not the only one in Saudi Arabia to fall foul of the authorities. In general, the crackdown on freedom of expression has been in full swing for quite some time. By Kersten Knipp

By Kersten Knipp

Saudis in Jeddah may soon be able to get a good idea of what happens to those who deviate from the path of righteousness. After fulfilling their duties of faith every Friday at al-Jafali Mosque, they may bear witness to a cultic act of a very different kind on the square outside the holy building: they may see Internet activist and blogger Raif Badawi bound and kneeling on the ground, waiting to receive 50 lashes. This scene will be repeated every week for 20 weeks until he has received 1,000 lashes, the sentence handed down but not yet carried out by a Saudi court.

The sentence was handed down to Badawi because he dared to criticise the religious authorities of his country on his website "Free Saudi Liberals", an Internet platform for debate on the relationship between politics and religion in Saudi life. For this and for giving other Saudis access to such a forum, the judges handling his case deemed corporal punishment alone insufficient. So, after seeking an appeal to his sentence of 600 lashes and seven years in prison, he was sentenced in May 2014 to a total of 1,000 lashes, along with 10 years imprisonment and a fine of 1 million riyals (equivalent to nearly €200,000), for "insulting Islam".

The sentence is "extremely harsh" says Ali H. Alyami, head of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. By Western standards, Badawi did nothing wrong, he added; he did nothing other than start a forum on the freely accessible Internet aimed at "a new generation of Saudi young men and women, who want to express themselves in a way that they can counter the overwhelming majority of clerics and religious people."

A young Saudi man in an Internet cafe in Riyadh (photo: AP)
Internet generation: a young Saudi man in an Internet cafe in Riyadh. The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, "who was born in 1984, belongs to the first Saudi generation that grew up with satellite television and the Internet. Young Saudis are accordingly well informed about global events and can compare different systems, values and world views with each other," writes Kersten Knipp

Draconian sentences

When it comes to such draconian sentences, Alyami says that Badawi is definitely not the only activist in Saudi Arabia to receive such treatment. Alyami condemns the official Saudi position as "extremist" and says that the rule of law was absent in the country. "The Koran is the constitution and Sharia is the law," he says, adding that anyone who criticises religion, the royal family or the country's clerics is, according to the Wahhabi clerics and the Saudi regime, in breach of Islam. "Of course, this is ridiculous because this man did not say anything against Islam."

Just how long the Saudi regime can keep up this pressure is questionable. After all, for years, the trend towards free access to information has been growing in Saudi Arabia. Badawi, who was born in 1984, belongs to the first Saudi generation that grew up with satellite television and the Internet. Young Saudis are accordingly well informed about global events and can compare different systems, values and world views with each other. The competition of ideas has begun.

Regardless of how long it may take, this trend cannot be stopped, Saudi artist Ahmed Mater told the Goethe-Institut, adding that he hopes this change will happen peacefully. "We need balance between stability and change," he said. "My country has changed immensely over the past 20 years, and I don't believe we, as a society, have taken the time to reflect on this change."

Now, young Saudis in particular are making up for this lack of reflection. They use online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to share their views. Saudi Arabia's "Twitterspheres" is one of the largest in the world.

Since 9/11, the Saudi royal family has felt threatened not only ideologically, but also by terrorists. Many of the pilots who carried out the terrorist attacks in 2001 were from Saudi Arabia. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State have declared war on the Saudi regime and vowed to replace what they see as Saudi Arabia's decadent system with one that reflects their view of a true Islamic theocracy.

As a result, Saudi Arabia has already passed a number of laws to combat the terrorists. However, the state is not only using them against armed jihadis but also against liberals and bloggers like Raif Badawi, people who have completely different goals and are attempting to attain these goals through exclusively peaceful means. Words are their only weapons – words of criticism.

King Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud (photo: Reuters/Brendan Smialowski)
Draconian punishment for anyone who dares to criticise the royal family or the country's clerics: Wahhabism is the austere form of Sunni Islam practised in Saudi Arabia. New legislation has given the authorities sweeping powers to take action against anyone critical of the royal family or religious establishment

Homegrown problems

But the Saudi state obviously doesn't see any difference between the two – or perhaps it simply doesn't want to. Badawi's sentence was based on legislation enacted in early 2014 that gives the state swingeing powers. According to Human Rights Watch, "these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism." In short, any statement that goes against the state can be stamped as "terrorism".

It is hard to say what the outcome of this policy will be. According to Ali H. Alyami, Saudi citizens are becoming increasingly angry: "Saudi people are very resentful of their government and its policies, its exploitation of their wealth and its denying them the right to express themselves peacefully," says Alyami, adding that he expects this discontent to turn into protests soon. That's exactly what the Saudi regime fears, because the basis and focus of the protests have changed – not only in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the entire Arab world.

For the first time, Arabs consider their problems to be homegrown. They aren't blaming the Israelis or colonialism this time, nor the United States or Europe. "They see their own part in this development," says Alyami, adding that "the Arabs have lost their fear, and once you have lost fear, it never comes back. That's where the Arab people are today."

The public protest, he believes, could possibly cause Badawi to be released early from prison. That would be an important step but only one of many that need to be taken. According to Alyami, Saudi Arabia's prisons are full of inmates who have been sentenced on similar charges but whose cases have not made it into the public eye.

Kersten Knipp

© Deutsche Welle 2014

The first paragraph of this article was amended on 30 December 2014 to reflect the fact that the sentence has not yet been carried out.