The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Saudi man has been sentenced to death after insulting the prophet Muhammad on Twitter

Amnesty International says Saudi Arabia carried out more than 154 executions last year, the third highest total in the world. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

The Saudi religious police had gotten word of Ahmad Al-Shamri's tweets and went to his door sometime in 2014.

He was accused of using social media to say disparaging things about Islam and the prophet Muhammad, according to activists. The charge: apostasy, a crime punishable by death.

But activists with Human Rights Watch say Al-Shamri probably was mentally unstable. The biggest sign was the crime he was accused of: He was tweeting such thoughts in a country where public statements such as that could mean a death sentence.

Al-Shamri pleaded insanity, saying that he has a mental disorder and that he was drunk, high and in an altered mental state when he made the comments, said Hala Dosari, who is on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch, which investigates human rights abuses. Dosari has been trying to get information about Al-Shamri's case since 2014.

She told The Washington Post that his trial focused heavily on Koranic law and little on any mitigating mental illness. As a result, Al-Shamri has been sentenced to death for being an atheist.

His case provides a glimpse into the Saudi Arabian judicial system, which routinely tries to hide capital trials and death sentences from the outside world, activists say.

What is known is that there has been a surge in death sentences since 2014. More than 400 people have been put to death since then, according to a report by Amnesty International.

“The conservative religious folks have full control of the justice system,” said Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch.

“Judges come from religious seminaries in Saudi Arabia. They see themselves as preservers of Saudi Arabia’s character as an Islamic state,” he said. “And they come down hard on people who step out of line.”

Most of the sentences are based on Koranic law, not a penal code, and Coogle said judges and prosecutors have almost unlimited leeway “not only to decide cases, but what constitutes a criminal offense in the first place. Sometimes it is just a description of your behavior.”

A spokesman with the Saudi Arabian embassy did not immediately return a Washington Post message seeking comment.

Saudi Arabia executed at least 154 people in 2016, although activists think the number is higher. The country ranked third in 2016 in executions, according to Amnesty International's report. Condemned people in Saudi Arabia are killed by beheading and shooting. And Amnesty International has grouped the country with those where people can receive the ultimate punishment for crimes other than murder. Death sentences, the report says, can be based on “confessions” extracted through torture.

“A large number of these executions were not imposed for the most serious crimes but for offences such as nonviolent drug-related crimes which are not even mandatorily punishable by death according to the authorities’ interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law,” according to the report.

Among those killed by the state last year was Sheik Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. Most of the people killed on Jan 2 — 47 in all, some by beheading and others by firing squad — were Sunni Muslims accused of terrorism.

But Nimr was a Shiite put to death for political activism, according to The Post's Liz Sly. He led some of the Arab Spring-inspired protests that roiled the country in 2011.

The State Department “raised concerns at the highest levels of the Saudi government about the judicial process,” Sly reported. And there were international calls demanding clemency and calling the execution a human rights violation that targeted a “peaceful expression of dissent.”

Amnesty International had serious misgivings about his trial and treatment:

“The trial proceedings contravened international fair trial standards. The authorities did not inform his family before he was executed. They refused to return his body for burial, despite the family’s numerous requests, thereby compounding their suffering.”

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