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In the brutally oppressive Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a man in his early 20’s has been sentenced to death by public beheading on charges of apostasy, after losing two appeals.
The man had uploaded a video (shown above right) capturing young men and women dancing and having fun together at a party, in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Mohammed on camera.
Various local papers have identified the man as Ahmad Al Shamri from the northeastern town of Hafar al-Batin, though neither his identity nor his sentence have been verified by Saudi officials. Requests for comment from Saudi government representatives were not immediately answered.
Al Shamri has remained in prison since his April 2014 arrest by Saudi authorities on charges of “atheism and involvement in insulting the divine and several Companions of the Prophet [Muhammad].” On February 22, 2015, the general court for the Hafar Al-Batin district ruled that the young man must receive the punishment assigned in the Quran for renouncing Islam after it had been proven “that he renounced Islam and insulted the divine and the Prophet Muhammad, defamed him and his daughter Fatima, tore up the Quran and hit it with his shoe, filmed all these actions, and uploaded [the video] to Keek…”
Al Shamri’s defense attorney, Tharawi Al-Muflih, rejected the accusations against his client and recommended a reassessment of his case. He entered an insanity plea, arguing that his client was a drug addict and alcoholic in need of rehabilitation, and had been under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time the video was shot. He added that a psychiatric facility in Hafar Al-Batin had confirmed that his client used drugs, and had recommended that a medical committee assess his competence to stand trial; however, this had not been done. The insanity plea was rejected by the Appeals Court, and Al Shamri lost his Supreme Court appeal earlier this week.
The Saudi government daily Al-Sharq (whose April 30, 2014 report on the investigation is shown on the left) reported that the residents of the cities of Hafar Al-Batin and Al-Qaisoumah, the region where the young man lived, had condemned his “loathsome” deeds and said that his actions “represented [only] himself.”
The newspaper added that after the previous year’s investigation of the man, “the prosecutor-general ordered that the the suspicions against him be proven and that he be sentenced according to the punishment is set out in the Quran for renouncing Islam, [that is,] by executing him by the sword. Three judges of the Hafar Al-Batin court discussed the matter and proved the claims against him and sentenced him for his renouncement of the religion of Allah. The sentence included Quran verses, hadiths, and quotes from scholars stating that anyone who insults the principles of the religion and the sacred words must be killed, because the faith of anyone who carries out these deeds is null and void.”
Al Shamri first attracted the attention of authorities in 2014 after allegedly uploading the viral video showing the “mixed partygoers.” Such “mixing” of unrelated males and females is strictly forbidden under Sharia law, which dictates that men and women stay separated as much as possible, fearing that the mixing of the genders poses a threat to female chastity and society.
Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights track record has been under constant, intense scrutiny, frequently drawing condemnation from various international human rights organizations around the world.
In 2015, the country executed 153 people, most of them for drug trafficking or murder. According to Amnesty International, there has been a surge in death sentences since 2014, with reportedly over 400 people having been executed since then. The number of executions in Saudi Arabia two years ago was the highest for two decades.
Saudi Arabia adheres to an ultraconservative, intolerant, literal interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Salafism, or “Wahhabism,” as it is often called outside of Saudi Arabia to describe the country’s particular brand. It is under this brutal, extreme religious doctrine that “sorcery”, “witchcraft,” drug trafficking, repeated drug use, armed robbery, rape, and apostasy are all punishable by death. The Saudi kingdom governs following Hanbali jurisprudence, the strictest of four schools of traditional Sunni Islamic law — its fundamentalism is so excessive and notorious that it’s even referenced in an Egyptian expression for nitpicking: “Don’t be Hanbali”.
Under Saudi Arabia’s strict religious laws, leaving Islam can be punishable by long, harsh prison sentences, corporeal punishment, or even death. The country forbids non-Muslim religious practice, and any departure or conversion away from the Muslim faith is considered apostasy, a capital offense. In 2014, the now-deceased King Abdullah issued a series of royal decrees that re-defined atheists as terrorists, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
The kingdom established a “religious police” as a sort of “vice squad” to monitor behavior within the kingdom and enforce fundamentalist Sharia law in respect to the strict Wahhabist principles of morality and propriety. According to the religious police, who monitor social networks for any “blasphemous” speech, or any expression of religious skepticism or atheist sentiment, they found more than 600 tweets denying the existence of God, ridiculing the Quranic verses, accusing all prophets of lies, and contending that their strict religious teaching fueled hostilities.
In addition, conservative clerics who possess considerable sway among Saudis, use the label ‘atheist’ to discredit those who question their strict interpretations of Islamic scriptures or express doubts about Wahhabism.
Raif Badawi (pictured right), a blogger in his early 30’s, was imprisoned on charges of atheism just for encouraging discussion of different versions of Islam besides Wahhabism on the website “Free Saudi Liberals.” Badawi was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes (increased to 1000 lashes) in July 2013, a much-publicized penalty that sparked international outcries of protest and condemnation. His lawyer, Waleed Abu Alkhair, a human rights activist who has also been imprisoned, said Badawi assured the court that he was a Muslim but added that “everyone has a choice to believe or not believe,” the BBC reported.
Last year, a 28-year-old man was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing atheistic sentiment in hundreds of social media posts, according to a report in Al-Watan. He was also fined 20,000 riyals by the court – or, just short of £4,000. The unnamed man admitted to being an atheist and refused to repent, declaring that what he wrote reflected his own beliefs and that he had a right to express them.
Despite Wahhabist doctrine maintaining an oppressive stranglehold over all aspects of Saudi life and the unreasonably severe consequences of religious nonconformity, a growing number of Saudis have been privately declaring themselves atheists. A 2012 poll by WIN-Gallup International of about 500 Saudis found that 5 percent described themselves as “convinced atheist.” In comparison, the global average of self-described atheists is 13 percent.
The increasing willingness of Saudis to privately admit to being atheist reflects a general disillusionment with religion and what one Saudi called “a growing notion” that religion is being misused by authorities to control the population. This disillusionment is seen in a number of ways, ranging from ignoring clerical pronouncements to challenging and even mocking religious leaders on social media.
It is still extremely dangerous to publicly admit one is an atheist because of the dire legal consequences, as tragically realized by Al Shamri.