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Saudi Lawyers Jailed for Critical Tweets

A Saudi court in Riyadh on Monday sentenced three lawyers to up to eight years in jail after they criticized the Ministry of Justice on Twitter. The lawyers were also hit with travel bans of varying lengths and an indefinite ban on appearing in the media or using social networking websites.

The lawyers were charged with “contempt of the judiciary, interfering with its independence, criticizing the justice system and the judiciary” in their tweets which “undermines general order,” according to a statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Earlier this year they were fined more than 1 million Saudi riyals ($266,666) in total by the Ministry of Culture and Information’s legal committee on similar charges. A few months later a disciplinary committee at the Ministry of Justice stripped them of their licenses to practice law. The latest trial was before the Specialized Criminal Court, which usually tries terrorism suspects.

The case is one of several in recent months involving the popular microblogging tool Twitter, which enjoys huge popularity in the conservative kingdom – where more than half of all Saudi Internet users maintain an account on the social network.

In March, a man was sentenced to 10 years in jail for posting tweets to encourage people to take part in anti-government demonstrations. That followed another sentence of seven days in jail against a journalist who tweeted about an electricity blackout in the northern part of the country.

Monday’s sentence is “very shocking, illegitimate and illegal,” said one of the three lawyers, who spoke to The Wall Street Journal on the condition of anonymity.

“The sentence damages the reputation of the Specialized Criminal Court because it’s the court that issues sentences on those accused of terrorism and threatening national security,” he said. “What does Twitter has to do with threatening national security?”

The three lawyers, one of them a Harvard Law School graduate, have often used the social media platform to express their frustration with the performance of the Ministry of Justice, especially what they saw as failure to implement reforms as part of a $2 billion project to overhaul the judiciary that was announced by King Abdullah in October 2007.

The lawyer said they remain confident that the king will not allow the verdict to stand, and that they plan to write him again to intervene. Letters sent to the king and the Interior Minister following the first sentence last June didn’t receive a response, he said.

Both, the lawyers and the public prosecutor, plan to appeal the latest sentence.

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(via WSJ Blogs)

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