Voicing dissent against the regime or expressing difference of religious beliefs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always been a slippery slope. The freedom of speech and other human rights in this Islamic theocracy, backed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) coalition, has been a point of concern around the world.
On numerous occasions, the regime has faced harsh criticism from global rights groups for its heavy-handed approach against anyone who dares to speak in a tone not prescribed by the royal family.
Human rights on a whole, including women’s rights, have often been put in jeopardy, but freedom of speech has suffered the maximum in this closed environment.
In 2007, a blogger, Fouad al Farhan, was arrested for his criticism of religious and business personalities of the country, but later released. The same happened to a couple of people who dared to speak against influential personalities or make sexually suggestive comments on TV.
But the harshest of punishment seems to have been meted out to blogger Raif Badawi who used to run a website called Free Saudi Liberals, which was a forum for rational religious discussions. He was arrested in 2012 and charged with ‘insulting Islam’.
Al Badawi was sentenced to ten years in prison, 1 million Saudi Riyals and 1000 lashes which would be administered every Friday, for 20 weeks. Badawi was to be given 50 lashes at a time.
Speaking out against this draconian decree, his family and rights activists in Saudi Arabia mentioned that he is not fit to endure such punishment in the first place. They said that if this punishment is carried out, it might lead to Raif’s death.
This sentence and a video of Badawi being lashed by a member of the security force, followed social media uproar on a global scale and the matter went to the Saudi Supreme Court for further consideration. But in a fresh judgment the top court has upheld the punishment and hence the punishment which was halted after the first round of lashes, without a reason provided, will resume as per prescribed in the original sentence.
While Badawi’s family hoped for his release, he seemed sure of his fate. His wife has requested the countries and rights group who campaigned for Badawi earlier to mobilize again to put the regime under pressure and secure her husband’s release.
Very recently, prominent rights lawyer and Olof Palm Prize recipient, Waleed Abu-l Khair was also sentenced to 15 in years in prison for actions that a special court in Riyadh considered “offensive.”
In the light of the recent killings of bloggers in Bangladesh at the hands of extremists, such a judgment doesn’t send a very good signal about the regimes self-proclaimed distance from extremist ideologies.
Freedom of speech and the right to express dissent is a very crucial factor not only for democracy but also for the survival of a fully functioning civil society. Sadly this right is facing maximum repression in most parts of the world.