A month earlier, on July 29, Saudi Arabia sentenced Raif Badawi, a web editor, to 600 lashes and seven years in jail after being convicted on blasphemy and other charges.
What do these two diverging developments have in common? Taken together, they highlight a paradox about Saudi Arabia and human rights. On the one hand, the country has reformers who back progress. On the other hand, despite their efforts, few nations rival Saudi Arabia in the scope, intensity, and longevity of its abuses of fundamental rights, from the rights of women to those of freedom of expression and religion.
When it comes to freedom of religion, Saudi Arabia continues to ban and punish severely most forms of expression other than its own interpretation of one particular school of Sunni Islam. The Saudi government still uses criminal charges of apostasy and blasphemy to suppress discussion and debate and silence dissenters from the dominant, state-supported ideology.
It appears that no vehicle of expression has been immune from the scrutiny of Saudi censors: perceived transgressors have been subjected to penalties ranging from physical beatings and lengthy prison terms to capital punishment.
The editor of the Free Saudi Liberals site, Badawi was arrested in Jeddah in June 2012 and charged with apostasy, "insulting Islam through electronic channels," and "going beyond the realm of obedience." While in January of this year, a Saudi court declined to pursue the apostasy accusation, which carries the death penalty, the court ordered that the web site be taken down, according to Badawi’s lawyer.
Badawi is far from alone. Those like him who use the Internet to offer perspectives which contradict government orthodoxy have not escaped punishment.
Among them is Hamza Kashgari.
Since February 2012, authorities have detained Kashgari, a blogger who continues to face possible apostasy and blasphemy charges.
Saudi officials told our commissioners during their visit to the Kingdom earlier this year that Kashgari was detained because he wrote statements on Twitter which "disturbed the public order," a charge he denies. They also made the dubious claim that the government is holding him for his own safety and is “educating” him to express his opinions in a way that doesn’t arouse conflict or injure the feelings of others.
Make no mistake: these and other Saudis are being held against their will for no other reason than daring to use cyberspace to discuss what is on their hearts and minds or those of their fellow Saudis. Attempts to stifle their voices through any form of punishment constitute a blatant violation of their rights under international law. The Saudi government should honor its international commitments and release both of these individuals – and others like them -- immediately and unconditionally.
Our commission applauds the State Department for immediately raising concerns about Badawi a day after his conviction. We believe it also should lift the indefinite waiver it has placed on applying penalties against the Saudis as a consequence of the CPC designation. We support instead a 180-day waiver, giving the Saudis a firm deadline for advancing and completing genuine reforms, particularly those it had promised in talks with the United States seven years ago, back in 2006.
Both creating a platform on the Internet for the peaceful exchange of ideas and participating in discussions about those ideas merit complete protection by any government. Indeed, all nations must affirm and protect the full scope of universal human rights, from the rights of women to freedom of religion or belief. As Saudi reformers agree, Saudi Arabia should be no exception to this rule.
George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and Swett is USCIRF vice chairwoman.