Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] has urged Saudi Arabia [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] to dismiss a criminal case escalated last week to a senior Saudi court on apostasy charges. Website editor Raif Badawi, 30, was originally charged with “insulting Islam through electronic channels” for co-founding the religious discussion website Free Saudi Liberals, but he now faces the death penalty for renouncing Islam [HRW report]. After presiding over five sessions of the trial at the Jeddah District Court, Judge Abdulrahim al-Muhaydeef was replaced without explanation by Judge Muhammad al-Marsoom, who referred the case to the Public Court of Jeddah on December 17 with a recommendation to try Badawi for apostasy. Shariah-based Saudi law is not codified and judges do not follow a system of precedent, but apostasy is a capital offense punishable by death. HRW claims that Badawi's arrest violates his right to freedom of expression. Badawi was detained by security forces in June. The website was originally founded in 2008 and included articles that were critical of senior religious figures, and has since been removed.
Saudi Arabia has been criticized for conducting unfair trials against opposition leaders and human rights activists. In August, several international human rights groups, including HRW, sent a letter to the Saudi Ministry of Justice [official website, in Arabic] seeking to observe the trials of four rights activists [JURIST report]. Saudi lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair and writer Mikhlif al-Shammari, and professors and human rights advocates Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammad al-Qahtani face charges of defaming the country's reputation, supporting international human rights groups and sparking demonstrations against the government. In July, HRW first urged Saudi authorities to release Badawi [HRW report] soon after he was charged with infringing on religious values under the Saudi 2007 Anti-Cybercrime law. In January, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) [official website] reported on the increased use of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia [JURIST report] and increased use of torture to obtain confessions. Additionally, HRW revealed that the number of capital punishment cases in the country has nearly tripled since 2010.