Charges Violate Precepts of Law, Freedom of Expression
Criminalizing speech on grounds that it is insulting might appease some people, but it violates the fundamental human right of free speech. The Saudi government uses these laws primarily to silence its critics.
The Saudi man used his website to criticize the religious police while the Turkish barber is accused of cursing the name of God.
“Criminalizing speech on grounds that it is insulting might appease some people, but it violates the fundamental human right of free speech,” said Sarah Leah Whitson,
On May 5, the prosecution service in Jeddah charged Ra’if Badawi with “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam,” and referred the case to court, asking for a five-year prison sentence and a 3 million riyal (US$800,000) fine. Unknown persons have hacked Badawi’s website multiple times, and have published his phone numbers, work address, and a threat on the hacked site: “Oh you retard, you are in the
The prosecution service had detained Badawi in March 2008 for one day to interrogate him about his website, which he uses to detail abuses by the Saudi religious police and to question the predominant interpretation of Islam. After being threatened with arrest for his online activities and receiving personal threats of physical harm, Badawi fled
“Saudi assertions of increased freedom of expression ring hollow in light of the systematic silencing of critics who dare to speak their minds publicly,” Whitson said.
In a second case, the Mekka appeals court on May 1 upheld Sabri Bogday’s death sentence issued on March 31, 2008 for “cursing the name of God.” Bogday, a Turkish national who had worked in Jeddah for 11 years as a barber, allegedly insulted God during an argument with a Saudi client and an Egyptian neighbor. Bogday, who did not have a lawyer in court, denied cursing God, but the three judges of the lower court regarded the testimony by the Saudi and the Egyptian witnesses as sufficient proof that Bogday had committed the crime of apostasy, or defection from Islam.
“The charges, conviction, and sentence against Bogday show the dangers of criminalizing speech on the grounds that it’s offensive,” Whitson said. “There’s no good reason to believe that criminal penalties for insulting God or religion either prevent such insults or restore the alleged damage done to the reputation of religion or God.”
Although the existence of blasphemy laws make some forms of insult to religion an offence, human rights bodies have called for their abolition, and as a minimum that they be narrowly defined so they are compatible with international human rights law on free speech. “Cursing God” does not meet this test and should not be a criminal offence, Human Rights Watch said.
International human rights law also protects freedom of expression. The government may only ban limited types of speech such as that which immediately and directly incites violence, but the government may not impose criminal sanctions for the expression of thoughts or opinions, merely because they are deemed offensive.
Sarah Leah Whitson,
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