In Saudi Arabia, trials are very closed affairs and the idea of equality of arms – that the defendant should have the same means to defend himself as the prosecution who accuses him – is entirely new, and more often than not, not respected in a Saudi courtroom.
I have seen large number of cases in which the Saudi judged kicked out of the courtroom the lawyer for a defendant in more politically charged cases, in common criminal cases, and in speech cases.
What we have seen now is the Saudi prosecutor has said he wants to file charges... against Hamza Kashgari, the tweeter, as well as against those who “supported or encouraged” Kashgari online. So the fear in Saudi Arabia right now is that this will be a witch hunt against liberals.
The panel that you mentioned earlier is the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia – the council of senior religious scholars – which sets out interpretations of Islamic law. They have called him an apostate.
So what we are saying is: even if he were to have a lawyer and all legal means of a defence at his disposal, it would be extremely hard to go up against essentially a pre-cooked verdict.
Q: You talked about this ‘witch hunt’ that people are expecting will unfold in Saudi Arabia. When the prosecutor talk about people who ‘supported’ Mr. Kashgari, what do you think that means?
There is a degree of increased freedom of expression Saudi Arabia, not so much by government fiat or government policy, but simply by the means of technology now at the disposal of Saudi citizens.
The Arab Spring hasn’t had a great impact on Saudi Arabia in terms of public demonstrations or calls for change in government.
But people have shed a good amount of fear in speaking out on even some controversial issues. So on Twitter you will find these days Saudis who are very outspoken about the social ills of that country, the ruling system, and, even sometimes as we see in this case, about the religious dogma.
And I think the prosecution is saying: those who form part of this liberal circle of intellectuals, often very young like Mr. Kashgari, will potentially face charges.
Let me give you a couple of examples: Walid Abu Al-Khair, a Jeddah-based lawyer and activist who I know fairly well, was recently called in to the prosecutor’s office and charged with communicating with Human Rights Watch. It’s those things that are uncodified, unspecified that lend themselves to political abuse that we see again in this case.
Very recently, a so-called group of Jeddah reformers were sentenced to very long prison sentences, up to 30 years, for allegedly using private meetings and using the Internet to try to overthrow the government. All they did from what we know is discuss ways of political reform.
Q: When I look at the reaction online, I see a Facebook group calling for Mr. Kashgari’s execution. I see people on social media tweeting and condemning what Mr. Kashgari originally tweeted. Do you see any support in that social media community in Saudi Arabia for Mr. Kashgari, or is it such a difficult environment for anyone to even articulate any sympathy or mercy for this young man?
There is no doubt that public opinion is against Mr. Kashgari at present in Saudi Arabia. But let’s not lose sight of a couple of facts.
One is that these campaigns, usually led by conservative Islamic clerics, are fairly organized. This is not necessarily an outpouring of public opinion per se, this is also an organized event.
What you’re getting at is, what would it take for somebody to stand against this? And I am getting messages from a number of Saudis who are horrified and outraged. And I would like to commend Abd al-Rahman Al-Lahim, a lawyer who himself has faced jail time and a ban on travelling abroad for his human rights advocacy, he has publicly said, “I am willing to defend Mr. Kashgari, however difficult it may be, he deserves a defence.”