Saudi’s Crackdown on Freedom of Speech and Activism

An Amnesty International protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Vienna (Photo Courtesy: European Pressphoto Agency

An Amnesty International protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Vienna
(Courtesy: European Pressphoto Agency

On Sunday, March 8th, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel met the Saudi Arabian king. Before the meeting, he criticized a Saudi court’s punishment against blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to ten years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a fine of $266,600. The 31 year old Saudi citizen Badawi’s crime was writing critical articles on Saudi Arabia’s clerics in his blog. He was arrested in 2012 and was charged with ‘insulting Islam’. Badawi was also found guilty of breaking Saudi’s technology laws. In January, Badawi received his first 50 lashes and since then the authorities have delayed the other rounds of flogging due to wide spread criticism from human rights activists and Western allies. US called Saudi authorities to annul the flogging. Sweden’s foreign ministry protested against the punishment and even Prince Charles raised the Badawi case during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia.

Raif Badawi has now brought international attention on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. However, Badawi’s case is said to be just the tip of an iceberg, since the Saudi Arabian government’s punishment against activists and bloggers has escalated to a threshold point in the last few years. Since 2011, the Saudi Arabian regime is said to have taken harsher methods to stifle online criticism. People are being jailed for tweets and following the arrest of Badawi, the government really wants to make an example. Saudi’s human rights activist, Mohammad Al-Qahtani, an academic from Indianan University (PhD in economics) is serving his ten year prison sentence and his crime was questioning the integrity of Saudi government officials.

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Badawi’s lawyer and prominent human rights activist Waleed Abul-Khair is serving a 15 year prison sentence for insulting Saudi’s judiciary. Recently, a video of beheading a woman was leaked, which was a wide-spread practice in the country. It is said that more than 80 people receive capital punishment in Saudi Arabia in the form of beheading, which triggered the comparisons of gulf country’s regime to the activities of ISIS.

Despite such despicable human rights record, the West out-poured praise after the 90 year old King Abdullah’s demise (on January 23rd, 2015). American President Obama praised him ‘as a leader always candid and a man who had the courage of his convictions’. British Prime Minister David Cameron acclaimed the King’s ‘commitment to peace’. Flags were put at half-mast at official buildings of the Saudi’s western allies like US, UK, Germany. The Western leader’s attendance to pay respects for the King Abdullah is seen ironical not only from the human rights perspective, but also from the religious perspective. Nearly one million Roman Catholics, mostly foreign workers, reside in Saudi Arabia. However, the Christians are banned from practicing their faith and some of them have been detained for worshiping even at their own homes.

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But, King Abdullah does deserve some credit for taking little actions against Saudi’s hardline monarchy. Saudi Arabia was established as a monarchy in 1932 (follows the strict Wahhabi Sunni Muslim school) and in 2005, the King induced certain minor reforms to the country’s law. The greatest achievement of King Abdullah is said to be women’s right reforms through the promotion of higher education opportunities for women. The reforms also included scholarships to study abroad and women to run and participate in municipal elections. However, the underlying problem of ‘male guardianship’ system remained the same. This system forbade women from obtaining passport, traveling or pursuing higher education without the approval of male guardian from the family. King Abdullah supported the idea of women driving. But, still the authorities is said to have arrested women for driving alone, and they have been sentenced to lashes. The rampant violations and oppression purported on the migrant workers doesn’t even come to light, unlike other human right abuses.

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After Sunday’s visit of German Vice Chancellor, a foreign ministry official from Saudi Arabia has totally rejected the human rights criticism and expressed ‘dismay at what is being reported by media about the case of Raif Badawi and other human right activists’. The official also stated that Saudi Arabia won’t accept interference in any form its internal affairs. Although the Saudi government has postponed the flogging of Badawi, his fate along with other activists’ fate remains obscure. The Western nations may raise the ‘Badawi’ issue, but for a large part Saudi will continue to remain as an exception to the Western nations’ human rights stance.

 

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