RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Shortly before meeting with the Saudi king on Sunday, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel criticized a court-ordered punishment against a Saudi blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam on a liberal blog.
The German news agency dpa quoted Gabriel as saying "the harshness of this sentence, especially the corporal punishment, is something unimaginable for us, and of course it weighs on our relations (with Saudi Arabia)."
Raif Badawi was arrested in 2012 after writing articles critical of Saudi Arabia's clerics on a liberal blog he created, which has since been shut down. He was found guilty of breaking Saudi Arabia's technology laws and insulting religious figures through his blog. In addition to the flogging and prison sentence, he was ordered to pay a fine of about $266,600.
His lawyer, prominent human rights defender Waleed Abul-Khair, is serving a 15-year sentence for insulting the judiciary, among other charges related to his political activism.
Badawi received 50 lashes in a public square in the western coastal city of Jiddah in January, but authorities have since delayed further rounds of flogging after widespread criticism from human rights groups and the kingdom's Western allies. The U.S. called on Saudi authorities to rescind the punishment and Sweden's Foreign Ministry summoned Saudi Arabia's charge d'affaires to protest the flogging.
Saudi Arabia made its first official comments on the case on Saturday, saying that it "expresses its intense surprise and dismay" at international media coverage of the case.
The statement, made by an unnamed Foreign Ministry official whose remarks were carried in the state-owned Saudi Press Agency, said the kingdom "does not accept any interference in its internal affairs" and said its judiciary is impartial and independent. The statement added that the kingdom's constitution, based in Islamic law, ensures human rights.
Activist group Avaaz had organized a protest in front of Berlin's Tegel airport before Gabriel's departure Saturday to the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Protesters handed Gabriel a petition urging him to help secure Badawi's release and a letter from Badawi's wife, who lives with their three children in Canada.
Gabriel told protesters that the German government has been working for weeks to secure Badawi's release.
Rights groups argue that the case against Badawi is part of a wider crackdown on freedom of speech and dissent in Saudi Arabia since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Criticism of prominent clerics is seen as a red line because of their prestige in the kingdom, as well as their influential role in supporting government policies.
Saudi Arabia's Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, who met Gabriel on Saturday, was quoted by state-linked media as saying that trade between the two countries reached $12.4 billion in 2013, with Saudi exports to Germany accounting for $418 million.
Jordans reported from Berlin.