Saudi Arabia's ruling family is coming under pressure from Western countries over its weekly flogging of writer Raif Badawi for “insulting Islam,” but it appears more worried about the risk of offending domestic conservatives if it lets him off.
The political stakes over the punishment of Badawi, who will face 50 more lashes on Friday, have been heightened by the Paris attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and its publication on Wednesday of new cartoons lampooning Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
The kingdom is attempting to marshal conservative Muslims behind a campaign against Islamist militants in al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS), but has stirred anger among many of them for what they see as its weak response to the cartoons.
Riyadh issued an unqualified statement of condemnation of the attack, echoed by conservatives in the country, but it did not strongly criticize the images and its ambassador took part in a solidarity march in which protesters carried the cartoons.
“They're under pressure inside to punish people like him, especially among Salafis. It is a question of the legitimacy of the state. You have to remember those people are very influential at a street level,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security expert with close ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry.
Saudi officials were not available for comment.
Since the attacks in France, the United States and European Union have criticized the punishment of Badawi, who had accused clergy of extremism on his Saudi Liberals website and prompted fury on social media. Overturning his conviction would look to some Saudi Islamists like a betrayal of core Muslim values.
Against the background of regional turmoil, the authorities have issued tougher penalties against all forms of dissent in the past year, from women driving to social media comments supporting Islamist militants, and have increased the use of the death penalty - via public beheadings.
Moreover, it is the top clergy that controls the judiciary, making it particularly uncomfortable for the ruling dynasty to overturn its decisions given that it is unelected and depends on clerical approval for part of its legitimacy.
In an example of the ire felt by conservatives, Islamist activist Mohsen al-Awaji told Reuters he would not even speak about Badawi's case because of his anger over the publication of new cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday.
“We don't have time these days to think of this guy Badawi because of the hatred taken by the West towards all Muslims when they publish these sorts of pictures against Muhammad. This is on the mind of everyone,” he said.
Badawi, who was flogged 50 times in public a week ago by an Interior Ministry official, is to face the same punishment every Friday until he has received 1,000 lashes. He will then spend 10 years in prison.
There has been almost no discussion of Badawi's flogging in Saudi press, underscoring official sensitivities over the subject, but on social media there has been some debate over the fairness of his punishment.
One person, tweeting under the name Fattima, wrote: “Saudi Arabia condemns Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in France and at the same time it lashes Raif Badawi for freedom of speech, what an ignorant government.”
But the opinion of Ibrahim al-Zubaidi, another Twitter user, that “anyone who will offend Islam deserves the same fate” appeared more typical of Saudi opinion on the social media platform.
Awaji said conservatives were at risk of becoming sympathetic to militants after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
“People are angry with the government. They think it is showing more respect to the West than it is to the Prophet. They even shared in this demonstration in Paris while there were pictures in the demonstration insulting the Prophet,” he said.
The Al Saud dynasty have worked hard over the past decade to build up religious support for their campaign against al-Qaida and, more recently, IS, which attack the family for its ties to the West and gradual moves to liberalize Saudi society.
They have imprisoned clerics who openly backed the militant groups, have sacked others for comments the authorities viewed as extremist and have for years pressed senior clergy to denounce al-Qaida, IS and similar groups as “deviant.”
Saudi implementation of Sharia punishments like beheading as well as flogging for crimes such as adultery, apostasy, blasphemy and witchcraft, along with its denial of equal rights for women, is the source of intense criticism in the West.
But when President Barack Obama visited Riyadh in March, Washington said he did not discuss human rights with King Abdullah in a meeting that focused on regional conflicts - an illustration of the limits of Western pressure.
However, the Al Saud have also sometimes curtailed their use of Sharia penalties in cases that particularly outraged international opinion, such as the punishment of rape victims for breaking gender segregation rules.
While King Abdullah appears unlikely to risk angering domestic opinion by issuing a pardon to Badawi, Alani said, he might respond to growing international pressure by informally suspending the floggings before they are completed.
“The first part is done and they have made their point,” he said.