The editor of a social website in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes after being found guilty of insulting Islam by encouraging users to voice their opinions about the role of religion in the kingdom.

According to Saudi media and Human Rights Watch, Raif Badawi — who founded the online forum “Free Saudi Liberals” — was accused of violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thought. The criminal court added an additional three months to his prison sentence for “parental disobedience,” which is also a crime in Saudi Arabia.

Badawi has already been in custody for a year “on charges of cyber crime and disobeying his father,” Reuters reports.

Saudi Website Editor Sentenced to 7 Years in Prison, 600 Lashes for Insulting Islam

Editor Raif Badawi was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for founding a website that Saudi authorities considered to be insulting to Islam (Photo: Facebook)

According to Al Wattan, the judge in Jeddah who handed down the sentences on Monday dropped charging Badawi with apostasy, a crime that carries the death sentence, only after Badawi proclaimed to the court his devotion to Islam.

“This incredibly harsh sentence for a peaceful blogger makes a mockery of Saudi Arabia’s claims that it supports reform and religious dialogue,” says Nadim Houry, 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.”

In a post on its website providing more details on the case, Human Rights Watch explains that Badawi founded the online platform in 2008 “to encourage debate on religious and political matters in Saudi Arabia.”

“The judge ordered the closure of the website and added two years to Badawi’s sentence for insulting both Islam and Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, in comments during television interviews,” Human Rights Watch writes.

Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, told Human Rights Watch that Badawi was sentenced to three additional months for Uquq, or “parental disobedience,” due to Badawi’s numerous public confrontations with his father.

In order to have the apostasy charge dropped, Badawi had to recite the Shehadeh, the Muslim declaration of faith, to prove he is a Muslim, his lawyer reported.

Reuters reports that Badawi’s wife wrote on Twitter: “The judge asked Raif ‘Are you a Muslim?’ and he said ‘Yes, and I don’t accept anyone to cast doubt on (my belief).’”

Badawi’s lawyer Abu al-Khair broke down the charges, explaining that his client got five years for insulting Islam and violating the Saudi anti-cybercrime law. The judge affirmed that “liberalism is akin to unbelief,” Human Rights Watch writes.

Badawi’s defense attorney says that at a hearing last year, Judge Muhammad al-Marsoom prevented the lawyer from representing Badawi. The judge said that the defendant had to “repent to God” and to renounce his liberal beliefs or face capital punishment.

Human Rights Watch recounts the numerous times Badawi has been harassed since setting up the website:

In March 2008, authorities arrested Badawi and questioned him about his website, but released him a day later. In May 2008, Badawi was formally charged with “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam” and he left the country. He returned when prosecutors apparently decided to drop the charges, he told Human Rights Watch. In 2009, the authorities barred Badawi from traveling abroad and froze his business interests, depriving him of a source of income, he told Human Rights Watch.

On March 18, 2012, the well-known cleric Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak issued a religious ruling declaring Badawi an “unbeliever… and apostate who must be tried and sentenced according to what his words require.” Al-Barrak claimed that Badawi had said “that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists are all equal,” and that even if these were not Badawi’s own opinions but “an account of the words of others, this is not allowed unless accompanied by a repudiation” of such words.

Badawi’s wife and children moved overseas last year to avoid any repercussions against the family.

According to Human Rights Watch, he has 30 days to appeal the verdict.