A Saudi Arabia [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] court on Tuesday sentenced the editor of a liberal website to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. Raif Badawi was found guilty [Reuters report] by a Saudi court of "founding an Internet forum that violates Islamic values and propagates liberal thought." Badawi was originally charged with insulting Islam for co-founding the religious discussion website Free Saudi Liberals. He was detained in June 2012, and his case was referred to the Public Court of Jeddah in December with a recommendation to try him for the crime of apostasy. Shariah-based Saudi law is not codified and judges do not follow a system of precedent, however, apostasy is a capital offense, which can be punishable by death. In January, however, the court decided [HRW report] not to try Badawi for apostasy. The website Free Saudi Liberals was founded in 2008 and included articles that were critical of senior religious figures, and has since been removed.
Saudi Arabia has been criticized for conducting unfair trials against opposition leaders as well as human rights activists. In June Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] urged [JURIST report] the EU's High Representative and other EU member states' representatives to condemn Saudi Arabia for recently convicting seven governmental critics of inciting protests through Facebook. Last December HRW urged [JURIST report] Saudi Arabia to dismiss the criminal case against Raif Badawi. Earlier, in August, several international human rights groups sent a letter [JURIST report] to the Saudi Ministry of Justice [official website, in Arabic] seeking to observe the trials of four rights activists who faced charges of defaming the country's reputation, supporting international human rights groups and sparking demonstrations against the government. Last July HRW first urged Saudi authorities [HRW report] to release Badawi after he was initially charged with infringing on religious values under the Saudi 2007 Anti-Cybercrime law. HRW has also revealed that the number of capital punishment cases in the country has nearly tripled since 2010.