NEW: Activist's wife calls sentence "devastating"
Raif Badawi has been in prison since June 2012
Human Rights Watch calls the sentence a "mockery"
Rights groups say Saudi authorities are targeting activists through the courts, travel bans
A Saudi court has sentenced a activist to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for violating the nation’s anti-cybercrime law, Human Rights Watch reported Wednesday.
A Jeddah Criminal Court found Raif Badawi, who has been in prison since June 2012, guilty this week of insulting Islam through his website and in television comments.
“This incredibly harsh sentence for a peaceful blogger makes a mockery of Saudi Arabia’s claims that it supports reform and religious dialogue,” said Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “A man who wanted to discuss religion has already been locked up for a year and now faces 600 lashes and seven years in prison.”
His lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, told Human Rights Watch that Judge al-Harbi read the verdict Monday. The court is expected to send him a written notification by August 6. They’ll have 30 days to appeal.
Case separates family
Ensaf Haidar, Badawi’s wife, said she’s devastated by the news.
“I don’t know what to do,” Haidar said Wednesday. “Raif did nothing wrong.”
Haidar and the couple’s three children now live in Lebanon.
Estranged from her family, Haidar said it would be impossible to take her children back to Saudi Arabia. The stigma is too strong there.
“You feel like everybody’s accusing you,” she said, close to tears, in an April interview. “Like everybody’s against you, at war with you.”
CNN has made several attempts to reach the Saudi Arabia government for comment but received no response.
A contentious five years
Badawi’s legal troubles started shortly after he started the Free Saudi Liberals website in 2008. He was detained for one day and questioned about the site. Some clerics even branded him an unbeliever and apostate.
Last summer, Human Rights Watch released a statement urging Saudi authorities to free Badawi.
“Saudi authorities should drop charges and release the editor of the Free Saudi Liberals website for violating his right to freedom of expression on matters of religion and religious figures,” a statement from the group said at the time.
Rights groups accuse Saudi authorities of targeting activists through the courts and travel bans. Many were outraged when two of the country’s most prominent reform advocates, Mohammed Al-Qahtani and Abdullah Al-Hamid, were sentenced in March to 10 years in prison apiece.
Amnesty International called that trial “just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the kingdom’s human-rights activists.”
Asked in January about accusations that Saudi Arabia is cracking down on dissent, Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, told CNN, “At the Interior Ministry, our area of responsibility is security.”
He added, “My understanding is that these cases are being looked at by the courts now. Nobody will comment on cases being looked at by the courts.”