Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian liberal writer, was arrested on June 17 in Jeddah and charged with ‘insulting Islam through electronic channels’ and ‘going beyond the realm of obedience’. His ‘crime’ at that point appeared to be setting up an online forum, Free Saudi Liberals, and attending a meeting in Cairo on May 7 of the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, but the words that constitute the offence were not specified.
Since then the ingredients of the ‘crime’ have been identified:
• He wrote about Valentine’s Day – a celebration banned in Saudi Arabia.
• He wrote at the end of the article: “Congratulations to us for the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue for teaching us virtue and for its eagerness to ensure that all members of the Saudi public are among the people of paradise”. (The Commission on the Promotion of Virtue is the de facto religious police in Saudi Arabia).
• He failed to remove certain articles by other people on his website – such as one insinuating that the al-Imam Mohamed ibn Saud University had become “a den for terrorists”.
In fact, the forum provided a platform for an open and peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures, according to Human Rights Watch. It was a requirement that contributors should adopt a respectful attitude to all religions, but that obviously did not mean they had to avoid criticising persons, institutions and practices.
After five sessions of the trial in the District Court at Jeddah that were said by Amnesty International to be ‘rife with irregularities’, a new judge took over, who called on Badawi to repent. He declined to do so, as anybody accused of conduct which is permissible under internationally accepted norms on freedom of expression. The judge then, without allowing Badawi’s lawyer to speak, transferred the case to the higher level ‘General Court’ dealing with more serious offences
Badawi duly appeared in the General Court on December 22, where the charge was upgraded to apostasy, which carries the death penalty under Shari’a law. However, the Qur’an defines apostasy as the rejection of faith in God after believing in him, which doesn’t apply to Badawi’s alleged conduct. Moreover, in none of the thirteen verses of the Qur’an which mention apostasy is the death sentence prescribed for it. Punishment for the offence is indeed mentioned, but it is always in the hereafter.
But even that is to accept that the argument should be conducted on Wahabi terms. Freedom of religion under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights includes freedom to change one’s religion, and to exercise those freedoms without coercion. The Prophet himself said: “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”
It is time for Liberals to stand up for Badawi, and to condemn the wicked laws that punish apostasy and blasphemy as well. Yes, we must respect religion, but not the judicial and punitive norms that are sanctioned under the guise of religion, which violate the most fundamental of human rights.
* Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, is a working peer, and Vice-Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group. He blogs here.