Thousands of Saudis took to Twitter to share their reaction to news of prominent Saudi blogger and activist Raif Badawi getting flogged by authorities in Jeddah on Friday for "insulting Islam."
Badawi was arrested in June 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes after being charged with offences ranging from cybercrime to disobeying his father and insulting Islam on his "Saudi Liberal Network" website - which is now offline.
The punishment has been condemned by the US and human rights organizations. But the online conversation is far less united on the matter.
Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict interpretation of Islamic law and it is still taboo to have open discussions about religion. Apostasy - renouncing Islam - carries the death penalty, and in 2008 Badawi was arrested and accused of that crime (although he was later released). So it came as little surprise to Saudis that the authorities would carry out the lashing.
"He established a network to spread apostasy and to offend religion and the prophet's verses and some people cry for him, I say he deserves more than this," one Saudi twitter user commented.
But there were many who expressed their anger and dismay at the sentence, especially at a time when Saudi Arabia is battling with extreme fundamentalism.
"It's religious extremism that deserves punishment because it's what brought us the Islamic State and not liberalism which fights extremism" commented another Saudi on Twitter.
Maryam Namazie tweeted "All those tweeting #JeSuisCharlie should also tweet #JeSuisRaif. @raif_badawi sentenced to 10 years prison & 1000 lashes. Saudi Govt STOP".
Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haider, who is currently living in Canada, said she was hoping the authorities wouldn't carry out the sentence.
"I've been in shock since hearing the news yesterday. My husband doesn't deserve this," she told BBC Trending.
But Haider was less surprised with the reactions online.
"I found supporting messages from around the world more than I did from Saudi Arabia. I suppose people are scared of the authorities," she said.
Elham Manea, an associate professor of politics at Zurich University, believes that there could be a possible number of reasons why the punishment was carried out.
"It could be because Saudi Arabia wants to show that it will not submit to international pressure," said Manea, who has been campaigning for Badawi's release. "It could also be about an internal struggle and rivalry inside the ruling family."
"But I'd say the most likely possibility is that the ruling family needs the support of the religious establishment against the tides of Arab Spring and dissident voices inside the kingdom, so this is what they are offering in exchange for their support," said Manea.
Both Manea and Haider are sceptical about the authorities responding to international pressure.
"I hope that our efforts to try to free Badawi will succeed but I cannot tell if Saudi Arabia will feel it needs to respond to international pressure now that it sees itself as vital ally in the fight against terrorism," Manea said.
Blog by Mai Noman
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