Saudi court sentences man to 10 years, 2,000 lashes for atheist tweets

A court in Saudi Arabia has handed down a guilty verdict in the case of a professed atheist accused of posting hundreds of tweets denying God’s existence and criticizing religion.

His sentence: a decade in prison, a fine and a flogging.

According to a Saturday report in the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — the Saudi religious police force whose duties include monitoring social media — found more than 600 tweets posted by an unnamed 28-year-old dissenter.

According to the report, the man refused to repent for the tweets and said that he had the right to assert his opinions.

In addition to the 10-year prison term, the court sentenced him to pay 20,000 riyals — about $5,330 — and receive a beating consisting of 2,000 lashes. Such floggings are generally broken up into weekly bouts of 50 lashings each and administered according to specific guidelines.

The legal basis of the court’s decision is a series of Interior Ministry regulations introduced in 2014 under the late Saudi King Abdullah.

The laws ostensibly seek to combat terrorism, but also allow authorities “to criminalize virtually any expression or association critical of the government and its understanding of Islam,” according to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

These regulations contain provisions — including one that criminalizes “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based” — that Human Rights Watch says have been used to silence activists and peaceful dissidents.

Atheism is a taboo subject in Saudi Arabia, where the government derives legitimacy from its adherence to an ultraconservative form of Islam, but a 2012 WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 percent of Saudi respondents described themselves as atheists, and anecdotal reports suggest that unbelief may be on the rise in the kingdom.