- (Photo: Facebook/Raif Badawi)
The editor of a social media website in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes after officials determined his blog website to be "too liberal" and guilty of insulting Islam.
A Jeddah Criminal Court in Saudi Arabia found Raif Badawi, editor of the social media website "Free Saudi Liberals," guilty of violating the country's anti-cybercrime law by insulting Islam through his website and television. Badawi was arrested in June 2012 for his involvement with the site, but it took the court a year to determine him guilty.
The purpose of the "Free Saudi Liberals" website was to discuss and question the role of religion in the conservative Middle Eastern country. Badawi was also reportedly accused of apostasy, which carries the death penalty, although a judge agreed to lift that charge earlier in July when Badawi swore to the court that he was a Muslim.
Human Rights Watch, which has been advocating for Badawi's release for the past year, said in a statement that the harsh sentence proves the Middle Eastern country is not accepting of other religions or free speech.
"This incredibly harsh sentence for a peaceful blogger makes a mockery of Saudi Arabia's claims that it supports reform and religious dialogue," Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement posted on the HRW website.
"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," Houry added.
The U.S. State Department has also spoken out against the sentencing, with spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying in a briefing on Tuesday that the U.S. believes "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."
France also expressed its concern on the ruling, with the country's foreign ministry reiterating a commitment to "freedom of opinion and of expression" in a statement.
Badawi's sentence was reportedly read by the court on Monday; he will receive a written notification of his sentence by Aug. 6, and will have 30 days to appeal his verdict.
Although Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has pushed for the reform of several of its strict Islamic-oriented laws, critics have argued that the country's conservative judiciary members have resisted implementing any changes.
In May, Saudi Arabian authorities sentenced one man to six years in prison and 300 lashes, and another man to two years in prison and 200 lashes for allegedly helping a woman convert to Christianity and escape the country.
In addition to persecution against religion, conservative Islamic clerics in the country have often denounced social media, with the head of the Saudi religious police force saying in May that Twitter was a path to hell back, although he later withdrew his comment.