Saudi Arabia: Website Editor Facing Death Penalty (Encouraged Peaceful Religious Discussion)

By Human Rights Watch

© 2011 Human Rights Watch

© 2011 Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should immediately drop all charges against the detained editor of a website created to foster debate about religion and religious figures in Saudi Arabia.

On December 17, 2012, the Jeddah District Court, which had been hearing the case against the editor, Raif Badawi, referred it to a higher court on a charge of apostasy, which carries the death penalty. The charges against him, based solely to Badawi’s involvement in setting up a website for peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures, violate his right to freedom of expression.

“Badawi’s life hangs in the balance because he set up a liberal website that provided a platform for an open and peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia needs to stop treating peaceful debate as a capital offense.”

A member of Badawi’s family told Human Rights Watch that during the December 17 hearing, Judge Muhammad al-Marsoom prevented Badawi’s lawyer from representing his client in court and demanded that Badawi “repent to God.” The judge informed Badawi that he could face the death penalty if he did not repent and renounce his liberal beliefs, the family member said.

Badawi refused, leading Judge al-Marsoom to refer the case to the Public Court of Jeddah, recommending that it try Badawi for apostasy.

Prior to the December 17 hearing, Badawi had been charged with “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and “going beyond the realm of obedience,” neither of which carries the death penalty. A different judge, Abdulrahim al-Muhaydeef, presided over five sessions of the trial but was replaced without explanation for the December 17 hearing by Judge al-Marsoom.

Saudi law derives from principles of Islamic Shariah, which are not codified and do not follow a system of precedent. As a result, individual judges are free to interpret the Quran and prophetic traditions – the two agreed-upon sources of Shariah – as they see fit.

With the exception of a few crimes – including the capital offense of apostasy – judges essentially can interpret offenses to fit facts rather than assessing whether facts fit a clearly defined offense. Saudi judges also frequently convict people who engage in peaceful criticism of religious or political authorities on vague charges, including “going beyond the realm of obedience.”

Security forces arrested Badawi, a 30-year-old from the port city of Jeddah, on June 17. Badawi in 2008 was co-founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, an online platform for debating religious and political matters in Saudi Arabia.

On the website, Badawi and others had declared May 7, 2012, a day for Saudi liberals, hoping to garner interest in open discussion about the differences between “popular” and “politicized” religion, Su’ad al-Shammari, secretary general of the website, told Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch had previously called for al-Badawi’s release on the grounds that his arrest violated his right to freedom of expression.

Based on a royal decree issued by King Abdullah in April 2011, all crimes related to insulting Islam by electronic means fall under the jurisdiction of a judicial council in the Ministry of Information. The council has the authority to refer cases directly to the king, who may “take measures in the public interest,” including referring cases to court.

The judicial process against Badawi has not made clear what words or activities provoked his prosecution. However, international human rights law provides broad protection of the right to freedom of expression. It permits restrictions only in narrowly defined circumstances, such as speech that constitutes incitement to imminent violence. International norms provide protection for speech about religion, including speech that some may find departs from commonly held beliefs or insults a religion or religious group.

Saudi authorities have harassed Badawi since he founded the website. In March 2008, prosecutors arrested and detained him for questioning but released him a day later. In 2009, the government barred him from foreign travel and froze his business interests, depriving him of a source of income, a family member told Human Rights Watch.

His father and a brother have publicly distanced themselves from him and declared him an unbeliever, and members of his wife’s family also filed a suit in a Jeddah court to have him forcibly divorced from his wife as an apostate. His wife and children are living outside of the country.

“Instead of protecting their citizens’ right to freedom of expression, the Saudi government has gone all-out against Badawi, to punish him and intimidate others who dare to debate matters of religion,” Goldstein said. “The authorities should drop the charges against him.”

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Saudi Arabia Urged to Spare Lives of Foreign Nationals Amid Surge in Executions

by Amnesty International

Three foreign nationals convicted of drug-related offences in Saudi Arabia must not be executed, Amnesty International said amid reports of a surge in executions in the kingdom since the beginning of the year.

Ali Agirdas, a Turkish national, as well as Sheikh Mastan and Hamza Abu Bakir, both Indian nationals, may be executed at any time following their conviction for drug smuggling and drug possession.

“The recent surge in executions in Saudi Arabia is a disturbing pattern, which puts the country at odds with the worldwide trend against the death penalty,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“King Abdullah must halt the execution of these three men and all those on death row for drugs-related offences. Their sentences must be commuted and an immediate moratorium on executions should be imposed as a first step towards the abolition of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Ali Agirdas, aged 31, was arrested in February 2007 for smuggling drugs in Riyadh and was convicted and sentenced to death by a General Court in the capital in June the following year.

His sentence is being considered by the Supreme Judicial Council, headed by the King. The council can approve his sentence at any time. Ali Agirdas did not have a lawyer or an interpreter during his interrogation and was only assisted by a lawyer during his appeal.

“Amnesty International is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. The fact that Ali Agirdas did not receive the assistance of a lawyer during his trial before the General Court in Riyadh further highlights that capital punishment should be abolished” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“However strongly the Saudi Arabian authorities support the death penalty, they must at the very least recognize that no one should be executed after such flawed legal proceedings and commute their death sentences.”

Sheikh Mastan and Hamza Abu Bakir are currently detained in al-Dammam prison in the country’s Eastern Province. They were arrested in January 2004 on charges of drug possession and sentenced to death by a court in al-Dammam in June 2006. Very little is known about their trial except that their sentences are said to have been upheld on appeal.

The plight of the three is even more precarious in the wake of reported executions of eight men since the beginning of the year, including five for drugs-related offences. Two men were put to death on Tuesday - Muhammad Abdul Malak Ajjaj, a Syrian national, was executed in al-Jouf and Saudi national Hamad bin Salem bin Muhammad al-Ghabari al-Yami, was put to death in al-Jizan.

Death sentences imposed for drugs-related offences do not fall into the category of “most serious crimes” embodied in international standards such as the UN Safeguards.

These require that the scope of crimes punishable by death “should not go beyond intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences”.

Since 2007, at least 356 people, including 162 foreign nationals, have been executed by the Saudi Arabian authorities.

Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty for a wide range of offences. Defendants are rarely allowed formal representation by a lawyer, and in many cases are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them. They may be convicted solely on the basis of confessions obtained under duress or deception.

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Thousands rally in solidarity with Middle East and North Africa protesters

by Amnesty International

Thousands of people rallied in cities across the world today to demand respect for human rights in the Middle East and North Africa as part of a global day of action organized by Amnesty International.

Activists, trade unionists, students and Amnesty International supporters gathered in countries from Morocco to Nepal in a day of "solidarity and defiance".

“Our message to the people of the Middle East and North Africa is that you are not alone in your struggle. We are with you,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's Secretary General, who led events in London’s Trafalgar Square.

“Our message to the governments of the Middle East and North Africa is that you will be held to account. The world is watching."

Rallies were held in cities across Austria, Belgium, Germany, Finland, France, Italy, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Morocco, Netherlands, Nepal, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Switzerland and the UK.

The event in London featured live pictures of protesters in the Syrian towns of Deraa and Idlib.

In Morocco, Amnesty International and local activists staged a sit-in in one of Rabat’s main squares.

Activists in Switzerland demonstrated solidarity with protesters in Egypt in an aerial art photograph spelling out the word Tahrir, while in France there were events in 13 cities across the country.

Despite the momentous changes in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, Amnesty International said that governments across the region had proved willing to deploy extreme violence in an attempt to resist unprecedented calls for fundamental reform.

Despite great optimism in North Africa at the toppling of long-standing rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, these gains have not yet been cemented by key reforms to guarantee that human rights abuses would not be repeated.

Egypt's military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), pledged repeatedly to deliver on the demands of the “January 25 revolution” but Amnesty International has found that they have in fact been responsible for a catalogue of abuses that was in some aspects worse than under Hosni Mubarak.

In Syria, the armed forces and intelligence services have been responsible for a pattern of killings and torture amounting to crimes against humanity, in an attempt to terrify protesters and opponents into silence and submission.

Amnesty International has received the names of more than 5,400 people believed to have been killed in the context of protests in Syria since mass protests began in March 2011.

Hundreds of people, the majority unarmed, have been killed by shelling and sniping in the opposition stronghold of Homs.

“We have documented a vicious pushback against human rights in countries such as Egypt, while elsewhere, such as in Syria, governments continue to brutally repress protesters,” said Salil Shetty.

“But the protest movements across the region, with young people and women playing central roles, have proved astonishingly resilient, and show few signs of abandoning their goals or accepting piecemeal reforms.”

“We stand here today to ensure that those responsible for violations – those who are opposed to human rights change - know that they will be held accountable for the abuses they have committed. Their attempts to stand in the way of human rights change must end.”

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Saudi Oil Minister Calls Global Warming “Humanity’s Most Pressing Concern”

Americans use the term “Saudi Arabia of” to describe an abundance of something — usually energy. We are the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” the “Saudi Arabia of coal,” the “Saudi Arabia of efficiency,” and so on and on and on.

I’ve come to jokingly use this term for anything really huge.  (We are, after all, the Saudi Arabia of climate denial.) So in true American spirit, I am dubbing yesterday’s speech by Saudi Arabia’s Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi the Saudi Arabia of bold statements.

In a speech at the Middle East and North Africa energy conference in London yesterday, Al-Naimi — who once called renewable energy a “nightmare” — hailed energy efficiency and solar as important investments, global warming “real” and “pressing,” and explained that drilling for oil “does not create many jobs.”

“We know that pumping oil out of the ground does not create many jobs. It does not foster an entrepreneurial spirit, nor does it sharpen critical faculties.”

In the U.S., which is definitely not the Saudi Arabia of oil (that would be Saudi Arabia), there is a major industry campaign underway to convince Americans that drilling for fossil fuels will create over a million jobs in the country. However, assuming we drill virtually everywhere possible in America, credible analysis puts the real figure at a small fraction of that claim.

Even the Saudis, who pump out 12% of the world’s oil, understand that simply drilling for more oil isn’t a long-term economic strategy.

A business-as-usual path also puts us deeper into environmental debt, a point that the Saudi oil minister seems to understand as well. While Al-Naimi said he believes that oil production “will continue to play a major role in the overall energy mix for many decades,” he also made some very explicit statements about carbon emissions:

“Greenhouse gas emissions and global warming are among humanity’s most pressing concerns. Societal expectations on climate change are real, and our industry is expected to take a leadership role.”

It’s still not really clear what that “leadership role” is — except to pump out more oil and gas. Although, Al-Naimi did give a plug to efficiency and renewables as increasingly important part of the country’s energy strategy:

“The efficient use of energy is as much an issue for Saudi Arabia, with its huge natural resources, as it is for all countries. Increased efficiency makes sense environmentally, but also economically.”

“We are striving, also, to raise awareness among the public, and specifically addressing children and schools about the tangible benefits of energy efficiency. And we are investing manpower, and brainpower, in efforts to develop new thinking when it comes to energy efficiency.”

“I see renewable energy sources as supplementing existing sources, helping to prolong our continued export of crude oil. And this is why we are investing in solar energy, which we also have in abundance. The Kingdom experiences roughly 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, emitting about 7,000 watts of energy per square metre. Saudi Arabia also features empty stretches of desert that can host solar arrays and it is blessed with deposits of quartz that can be used in the manufacture of silicon photovoltaic cells.”

Saudi Arabia is considering a renewable energy law that would help promote a modest increase in solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, biogas and waste-heat-to-energy. However, if the strategy is seen only as a way to “prolong continued export of crude,” it doesn’t really match Al-Naimi’s statement that carbon-based resources are “among humanity’s most pressing concerns.”

Indeed, the gap between rhetoric and the pace of change in global energy production is one big Saudi Arabia of contradictions.

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Beheading for "Sorcery" in Saudi Arabia Shocking, says Amnesty International

The beheading of a woman convicted of “witchcraft and sorcery” is deeply shocking and highlights the urgent need for a halt in executions in Saudi Arabia, Amnesty International said today.

The Interior Ministry said that the woman, Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser, a Saudi Arabian national, was executed on Monday in the northern province of al-Jawf. It gave no further details of the charges against her.

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