Saudi authorities have detained a Saudi national for setting up a website that "harms the public order and violates Islamic values", court documents and his lawyer said on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia, which follows an austere version of Sunni Islam, shows little tolerance towards public dissent and censors its media. Cyber crime regulations that came into force in 2007 make bloggers and website owners legally accountable for what they publish online.
The 25-year-old Ra'if Badawi, who runs the website "Free Saudi Liberals", was charged with cyber crime and also with disobeying his father, which is considered a crime in the conservative Arab monarchy and top US ally.
"He did that by setting up a website that harms the public order and violates Islamic values, including insulting the divine being and attacking some religious icons such as the Grand Mufti," a document from the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution showed.
The Mufti is Saudi Arabia's top religious authority.
Spokesmen from the Justice Ministry and the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution did not respond to calls or messages for comment.
Court documents show the evidence against Badawi includes a post on the website that asks, "is God unjust?", sarcastic remarks about the Saudi religious police and a senior scholar, and a post that asks, "why is Saudi's Grand Mufti blind?"
Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the charges and called for Badawi's release in a report issued on Tuesday.
"Saudi authorities should drop charges and release the editor of the Free Saudi Liberals website for violating his right to freedom of expression on matters of religion and religious figures," the group said in the report.
If convicted, Badawi faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Saudi riyals ($800,000), HRW said.
On Sunday Saudi newspaper al-Watan reported that Saudi Arabia is studying new regulations to criminalise insulting Islam and will include posts on social media where violators will face "severe punishments".
The potential regulations come five months after a Saudi blogger and columnist, Hamza Kashgari, 23, was arrested for tweeting comments deemed as insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Last year, Saudi King Abdullah, who has promoted religious dialogue and visited Pope Benedict in 2007, said he would forbid criticism of senior members of the Sunni Muslim clergy.
A media law issued in April 2011 after Arab Spring uprisings broke out stated that publications offending top figures or seen to jeopardise stability risk being closed or fined.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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