Saudi Arabia is explicitly an Islamic state, with no separation between state and religion. According to Article 1 of the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia (its equivalent to a constitution), “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet (God’s prayers and peace be upon him) are its constitution.” The country’s laws are based on Sharia law.
Like many Islamic states, “blasphemy” is conceived as a deviation from Sunni Islam and is thus treated as apostasy. Apostasy is criminalized and punishable by death. The death sentence (usually by beheading and crucifixion) is also used to address “crimes” of “witchcraft” and “sorcery”.
In March 2014, the Government brought into law new anti-terrorism legislation, which defines atheism as terrorism. Article 1 of the law 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.” Since the government system is grounded in Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, non-believers are assumed to be enemies of the Saudi state.
This legislation not only frames non-believers as terrorists but, along with related royal decrees, creates a legal framework that outlaws as terrorism nearly all thought or expression critical of the government and its understanding of Islam.
The punishment used for any perceived criticism of the ruling family or the state’s interpretation of Islam is harsh and often secret. Accordingly, many cases and convictions for free thought and expression are not made public which makes it very difficult to accurately report on the full extent of Saudi repression. Following a 2011 amendment to the country’s press law by a royal decree, the press is prohibited from criticizing the government or related officials, with violations potentially resulting in fines or forced closures of the press concerned. Articles deemed offensive to the religious establishment or the ruling authorities are prohibited.
In December 2013, Raif Badawi, a blogger and creator of a website Free Saudi Liberals, intended to foster debate on religion and politics, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals for “insulting Islam”. His writings in fact focus mainly on advocacy of secularism and are critical of religious authorities.
Co-founder of the liberal blogging network, Souad al-Shammary, a feminist writer and human rights activists, was also detained on charges of “insulting Islam”, and Raif’s lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair jailed under supposed “terrorism” legislation for “making international organizations hostile to the kingdom”.
Badawi was first jailed in 2012 for violating Saudi Arabia’s IT law and “insulting” religious authorities through his online writings and hosting those of others on his website. His sentence in 2012 was 7 years prison and 600 lashes, later increased on appeal.
There has been an international outcry over Badawi’s case, with many human rights advocates, including IHEU, repeatedly raising his plight at the United Nations and other human rights fora.
Attention on the case of Raif Badawi reached international fever pitch in January 2015 after he was flogged in Jeddah, receiving the first 50 of the 1,000 lashes he was sentenced to receive over 20 sessions. As of late January 2015, following subsequent postponements for medical reasons, Badawi remains in jail and under threat of receiving more lashes. His wife Ensaf Haidar, living abroad in Canada, has expressed concerns that any further lashing could cause irreparable damage or prove fatal.