On Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s state human rights commission said that the country has abolished flogging as a punishment for crime. The decision comes just days after leading activist and one of the founding members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) Abdullah al-Hamid died from a stroke in custody while serving an 11-year prison sentence for multiple charges including “breaking allegiance” towards the Saudi king and “inciting disorder”.
In 2014, blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and also sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” and for setting up a liberal media forum. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riyals. Badawi, who was arrested in 2012, had previously called for May 7 to be observed as a “day for Saudi liberals”. The first 50 lashes of his sentence were carried out in public view in Jeddah on January 9, 2015.
What kind of crimes was flogging a punishment for?
Before it was abolished, flogging was mandatory as a form of corporal punishment for several offences including murder, breach of peace, homosexuality, consumption or possession of alcohol, adultery, pestering girls, spending time with the opposite sex, insulting Islam and bringing in liqueur chocolates into the country, among others. Before the ban on women drivers was lifted in 2018, any woman caught driving could also be sentenced to flogging. This form of corporal punishment could be used by judges at their discretion as an alternative or in addition to other punishments.
Now, with flogging abolished, judges will have to choose between fines, jail sentences and non-custodial alternatives such as jail sentences. On Saturday, The Middle East Eye quoted the supreme court as saying that this reform was made in order to “bring the kingdom into line with international human rights norms against corporal punishment”.
The state of dissent in Saudi Arabia
Even though Saudi Arabia seems to be progressing towards a more open society, with the ban on women drivers lifted in 2018 and women not requiring permission from their male guardians to apply for a passport anymore, there have been several instances of women rights activists being arrested. In 2019, over a dozen women’s rights activists were charged, according to Amnesty International, for the nature of their human rights work, which includes promoting women’s rights and calling for an end to the male guardianship system.
It is well known that Saudi Arabia takes a dim view of dissent and has targeted a number of political activists in the recent past. One of the most high-profile cases of targetting political dissidents came to light in 2018, when journalist Jamal Kashoggi, who was a columnist for the Washington Post and a vocal critic of the Saudi regime, was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has concluded that Kashoggi’s assassination was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.
Another case is of Saudi scholar Salman al-Awdah who called for reform in Saudi Arabia and was ostensibly arrested after his Twitter post on September 9, 2017. He had tweeted: “May God harmonise between their hearts for the good of their people”. However, it was seen by the Saudi state as a call for reconciliation with Qatar. al-Awdah has been charged with 37 counts and faces the death penalty.
According to a recently released report by British non-profit Reprieve, Saudi Arabia has carried out its 800th execution under the crown prince’s five year rule and as per Amnesty International the kingdom executed 184 people in 2019.
The mechanism for targetting political dissidents
The American Bar Association (ABA) notes that the Saudi authorities created the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in 2008 to prosecute thousands of detainees who were kept in detention “without charge” since being held after the terrorist attacks — claimed by al-Qaeda — inside the kingdom in 2003. However, shortly after the setting up of this court, the caseload was expanded from the trials of alleged violent extremists to include political dissidents, religious minorities and human rights activists.
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Then in 2014, SCC was provided express jurisdiction after it adopted the Penal Law for Terrorism and its Financing (anti-terror law), “in apparent response to concerns in the United States and elsewhere that Saudi Arabia was not seriously investigating financing of terrorist groups,” ABA notes.
Through this law, the Saudi Ministry of Interior expanded the scope of the counter-terror law and included activities under its purview, such as questioning the fundamental principles of Islam, contact or correspondence with any groups or individuals that are deemed hostile to Saudi Arabia, calling for, participating in, publicizing, or inciting protests, demonstrations, gatherings, or group petitions with the aim of disturbing the social fabric or national cohesion.
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In July 2014, human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to 15 years in prison using the provisions of the anti-terror law. The charges against him included questioning a judge’s integrity and offending state authorities among others.
As per Amnesty International, he was the first human rights defender to be convicted by the SCC under the counter-terror law. The 2014 counter-law was replaced by a new one in 2017, which added definitions of specific acts of terrorism. The new law also changed the definition of terrorism to exclude the phrase, “insulting the reputation of the State”. However, Article 30 of the law gives prosecutors the right to limit the right of free expression if it criticises the king or the crown prince.
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