A man in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing his atheist beliefs in hundreds of posts on Twitter.
According to Saudi newspaper Al Watan, the country's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice found that the 28-year-old man posted more than 600 tweets denying the existence of God, critiquing the teachings of prophets, and deriding Quranic verses. When questioned by the religious police, known locally as the Haia, the man reportedly refused to back down from his beliefs and maintained that he had the right to free expression. The court also fined him 20,000 riyals or $5,300.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia introduced draconian new counter-terrorism laws that said atheists are the same as terrorists, criminalized all expression of dissenting speech, and gave the Interior Ministry the legal authority to jail people or spy on their communications without judicial oversight.
Because Saudi Arabia enforces a strict interpretation of Sharia law, any expression of religion that strays from the Quran can be considered a form of terrorism against the state. The law states that terrorism can be equated to "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based."
Organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were quick to condemn the new laws. "The new terrorism law gives Saudi officials a tool to silence anyone who says anything they don't like, all in the name of fighting terrorism," said Joe Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East.
Twitter had been a huge hit among young Saudis. In 2013, a study found that Saudis made up 4 percent of Twitter's users, almost as many as Spain and more than France or Mexico. One user said they believed Twitter was so popular in the country "because we are able to say what we couldn't say in real life. It's a breather from the suppression we live under, without fear."
Earlier this month, a Saudi activist wound up with a 10-year jail sentence after he took to Twitter to call for the release of prisoners convicted of "terrorism."
Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, the country's leading religious cleric, has condemned Twitter as "the source of all evil and devastation," which serves only to spread "lies and falsehood." The Haia, however, activated its own Twitter account last summer and immediately gained more than 66,000 followers. According to a report in the Saudi Gazette, the commission's leader Abdul Rahman Al-Sanad hoped that joining Twitter would improve public perception of the police.
In 2014, the religious police closed down more than 10,000 Saudi Twitter accounts for allegedly criticizing the royal family or spreading "pornographic" materials.
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