(CNSNews.com) – The sentencing of a Saudi blogger to seven years’ imprisonment and 600 lashes for blasphemy spotlights again the fact that the U.S. administration has for years waived the one legislative tool available for putting pressure on the kingdom over religious freedom violations.
Raef Badawi, the founder of a website promoting public debate on the role of religion in Saudi Arabia, was convicted this week of insulting Islam through the website and ridiculing religious figures – including the notorious religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. He has already been in custody since June 2012.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a prominent Saudi cleric last year issued a ruling declaring Badawi to be an apostate. Prosecutors originally added apostasy – a capital offense in Saudi Arabia – to the list of charges, but Badawi managed to persuade the court that he had not renounced Islam.
HRW deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said the sentence “makes a mockery of Saudi Arabia’s claims that it supports reform and religious dialogue.”
“King Abdullah has received praise for fostering dialogue and an exchange of ideas between religions, but it appears that Saudi authorities’ tolerance for open discussion stops at Saudi borders,” he said.
The king, who in 2011 opened a Vienna-based center for interreligious dialogue, has frequently been praised by Western governments, including the Obama administration, for fostering harmony between religions.
Speaking at a Ramadan iftar at the State Department last week, Secretary of State John Kerry told the gathering “I was impressed when I first visited Saudi Arabia, and I met King Abdullah, and I listened to him talk about his sense of urgency about bringing faiths together and his own initiative to try to reach out across the divide and bring Muslim and all other religions together.”
But at home Abdullah presides over a regime based on the strict Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam and rights campaigners say religious freedom for others – including Christians, Shi’ites and Ismaili Muslims – is essentially non-existent.
On its 2013 list of the worst persecutors of Christians, Open Doors USA put Saudi Arabia at number two (behind North Korea), a position it has held for most of the past decade.
“The Saudi government bans most forms of public religious expression other than that of the government's own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam and uses criminal charges of apostasy and blasphemy to suppress discussion and debate and silence dissidents,” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) chairman Robert George said on Wednesday.
Despite this record, the U.S. government has for almost a decade been waiving sanctions that it is empowered to impose against Riyadh under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The law provides for sanctions and under measures against designated “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), and Saudi Arabia has been on that list since 2004.
‘Not a U.S. priority’
In its annual reports the USCIRF, whose functions include making CPC recommendations to the administration, has expressed concern that the indefinite waiver of any consequences has allowed Saudi Arabia to get away with violations.
“USCIRF has concluded that U.S. policy in Saudi Arabia does not adequately prioritize issues of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief,” it said in its 2012 report.
“Religious freedom in Saudi Arabia has not been a U.S. priority in the bilateral relationship and, as a consequence, the U.S. government has not adequately held to account the Saudi government on its implementation of reforms,” the commission said in its 2013 report, released last April.
It recommended, not for the first time, that the secretary of state replace the indefinite waiver with a limited, 180-day one, during which time the kingdom should demonstrate that it is acting on reforms.
George on Wednesday again underlined that recommendation. He also called for Badawi’s immediate release and for the charges against him to be dropped.
“The only thing Mr. Badawi appears to be guilty of is creating a platform on the Internet for religious debate in Saudi Arabia, a right he is guaranteed to under international law,” he said.
During a visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this year USCIRF commissioners also brought up the case of another Saudi blogger, Hamza Kashgari, who has been held without charge since February 2012. Saudi officials told the commissioners he was detained for posting comments on Twitter that “disturbed the public order.”
Kashgari’s arrest followed an abortive attempt to flee the country following death threats. Authorities in Malaysia – generally characterized as a “moderate” Muslim country – apprehended him at the international airport in Kuala Lumpur and sent him back to Saudi Arabia where he has been incarcerated ever since.
“The U.S. has not helped religious freedom in Saudi Arabia,” Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said Wednesday, accusing the State Department of “empty” statements and ignoring pressing cases, including one of a Saudi convert to Christianity, now in prison.
Al-Ahmed said the U.S. has “massive leverage but cultural reasons makes its officials pay little attention to Gulf populations.”
In its response to the sentencing, the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR) warned that ignoring just and necessary demands for peaceful reforms could result in a “violent uprising.”
“At a time when the Arab masses are revolting against tyrannical regimes, some of whom are significantly less repressive than themselves, the Saudi ruling autocratic and theocratic dynasties act as though repression is the only means through which they can survive,” it said.
Asked about the U.S. policy of criticizing abuses but waiving sanctions, CDHR executive director Ali Alyami said late Wednesday that that stance merely “encourages the regime to increase its oppression.”
“The Saudi absolute regime feels safe to do whatever it wants and gets away with it,” he said. “This is due to the fact that the Saudi ruling family can rely on lobbyists, universities, major media outlets, think tanks, many members of Congress and big companies to get things done on its behalf in Washington and in other Western capitals.”
“The U.S. has tremendous leverage that it could use to make the Saudis sweat,” he said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki voiced concern about Badawi’s conviction and sentence.
“We believe that when public speech is deemed offensive, be it via social media or any other means, the issue is best addressed through open dialogue and honest debate,” she said. “We support efforts to promote human rights around the world, and this is something that is a regular part of our discussions with the government of Saudi Arabia.
Psaki could not say whether anyone in Washington had contacted the Saudis about the case, but said, “as you know, we of course have a team of diplomats and officials on the ground.”